They were 15 and 16 year-olds, the age when people start dreaming; perhaps a phase of life where one starts to believe life is good. The girls, preparing for their School Leaving Examinations, were waiting for their class to begin at a tuition centre on Sunday. It was a normal day, until a group of masked men entered their class, threw acid on them and fled.
The attack inflicted damage not only on their their faces and bodies, but also their psychology, self-esteem, personality and identity. The attack could mean a lifelong of bodily disfigurement, pain and trauma for the girls.
I was profoundly saddened by the news, and it put me into hours of Internet surfing to quench my concern about why, how and when such horrendous crime began. Sadly, acid attack is largely understudied form of violence.
Although the prevalence of acid attacks can be traced back to the 17th century, it became disproportionately high in South Asia towards the second half of 20th century, the highest reports coming from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. But it has also been reported widely from Uganda, Cambodia and Iran. BBC estimates there are around 1500 cases reported worldwide every year; DFID reports 786 cases in Pakistan alone between 2007-2012.
Unlike general perception, these cases are not limited to developing countries. A girl was attacked with acid by her boyfriend in the UK in 2008. Likewise, a Ballet singer in Russia was blinded by acid attack. There are 150 recorded cases in Colombia in 2012 and one in Italy in 2013. BBC also reported in 2014 that 105 hospital admissions in England were due to assault by corrosive substances, including acids.
As big as these numbers are, they are not exhaustive. Much more cases are not reported, mostly due to post-incident trauma, lack of awareness, poor reporting system and threat from the perpetrator. There were similar cases in Terai in the past, but they were not reported, making this the first media reported cases of acid attack in Nepal.
Perhaps, there are features which make acid an easy weapon to use against someone– it’s easily accessible from any neighborhood market, pharmacy or hardware store; it’s cheap, a liter costing as little as 20 cents; and it’s easy to execute – one doesn’t need to have any skills beforehand like other weapon; and the impact revenge is so deep that one moment is enough to deform someone for lifetime.
The main reason for acid attacks is equally terrible – rejection of love proposal from a boy she does not like. The ‘rejected’ guy reckons that the girl is too proud of her face, and so spoiling it is the best revenge. Also, men whose wives seek divorce are also found to use acid attack as a means of ‘safeguarding’ their honor in society.
This is why the attacks are: 1) mostly targeted at the victim’s face (>90%), 2) are mainly targeted at females (~80%) and 3) the victims are significantly under 18 (30%). However, in countries like Combodia and Uganda, both male and female are equally likely to be the victims of acid attack. The age group of victims is slightly higher because the reason for attack includes robbery and social disputes.
Undoubtedly, the victims struggle to lead a normal life. Attending normal schools, making friends and finding employment become challenging. The cosmetic surgeries or medical procedures that might be required to prevent further burns are out of access for many victims leading to blindness, deafness and death in about 5 percent of the victims. Social isolation, fear of further attacks and insecurity damage their self-esteem and confidence. For young, unmarried victims, finding a partner becomes extremely difficult, while for the married, divorce becomes highly likely. Ironically, in many cases, the perpetrators are husbands of the victims themselves.
Nepal does not have any law against acid attacks yet. Even if there was one, I doubt it would be implemented well. Bangladesh became the forerunner in responding to acid attack by bringing Acid Control Act in 2002. This led to the decline in the number of such attacks from 492 in 2002 to 75 in 2012. In 2011, Pakistan also formulated laws to protect its citizen from acid attack, and saw triple increment in convictions of perpetratos.
Nepal also needs to formulate strict laws as soon as possible. These laws should not merely focus on punishing the perpetrators, but also on controlling its sale by licensing of industrial acids and chemical labs is needed.
Additionally, there should be fast track legal services for the victims. We need specialized psychological counseling to rehabilitate the victims to the society and boost their morale.
One of the victims said she ran to wash the acid off her face as she had seen it in some TV operas. Yes, people need to know how to first aid themselves or others in case of acid attack. Also, the girls didn’t get service for hours after reaching the hospital. We need specialized medical personnel to look into acid attacks. People need to be aware, alert and assisting in case these ghastly offenses occur around them.
I was wondering what would be the best punishment for the perpetrators. What would make the girls feel they have been justified? Perhaps, nothing can be commensurate punishment for inflicting lifelong scars – both physical and mental – on the young girls. Still, I am glad to read that these girls are determined not to let this accident ruin their life goals.
(This article was also published by Setopati, Nepal’s Digital Newspaper at/ )