Will India finally stop men from throwing acid on women?

To stop these horrible attacks, the world's largest democracy may need more than tough laws. It will take a huge shift on gender equality

An unidentified acid-attack victim protests
(Image credit: AP Photo/ Saurabh Das)

A 23-year-old girl from Delhi, India, was exiting a train station in broad daylight recently when an unknown man tapped her on the shoulder and threw acid on her face. After spending a month in the hospital, Preeti Rathi died as a result of her injuries on June 1. Now, her father has started a Change.org petition with over 46,000 signatures alleging that local authorities have failed to adequately investigate the attack — and that as a result, the perpetrator is walking free.

Americans often hear about acid attacks on female students in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but Rathi's case is turning the international spotlight to India, where these kinds of crimes against women are prevalent, but victims are pressured to remain silent and attackers serve short sentences, if they are prosecuted at all.

"Many cases of acid violence, especially in rural areas, go untreated and unrecorded," says Jaf Shah, the executive director for Acid Survivors Trust International. Shah estimates that there are at least 1,000 acid attacks in India each year. "The government often denies the reality of these attacks, while police and judicial systems are either unable or unwilling to pursue reported attacks."

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Dehli's helpline for women reportedly received 56 reports of acid attacks over a three-month period this spring, a rise from previous months. Dr. Vrinda Narain, an assistant professor at McGill University and author of two books about Muslim women's rights in India, says that while India still trails Bangladesh and Pakistan in these particular crimes, "violence against women in India is rising sharply."

While some acid attacks are committed by strangers — like what happened with Rathi — the majority are motivated by deeply embedded gender inequality, which allows men to justify violent disfigurement as appropriate revenge to a rejected marriage proposal or a spurned sexual advance.

Attackers use nitric or sulfuric acid, which is often employed in manufacturing cotton and rubber, or hydrochloric acid, a liter of which costs less than 25 rupees (about 40 cents) in India, according to The New York Times. These kinds of acid can have instantaneous and brutal effects on the human body. As the Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI) describes, "thrown on a person’s face, acid rapidly eats into the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. The eyelids and lips may burn off completely. The nose may melt, closing the nostrils, and the ears shrivel up... The bones of the victims become exposed and, sometimes, the acid dissolves the bones too."

Until March, India did not have a separate statute for acid attacks, making statistics hard to come by and convictions difficult to achieve. Ten years ago, 17-year-old Sonali Mukherjee, who was president of her school's student union, was napping on the roof her house when three of her male classmates poured acid on her face. CNN reports that she has since had 27 reconstructive surgeries. The men who disfigured her served only two years in jail. Mukherjee has been trying to appeal the court's decision to this day, but hasn't been successful at getting an appointment. Another victim was drenched with acid when she was sleeping in 2003. According to ASFI, two of the perpetrators were sentenced to three years in jail, but freed early on bail, while the third was let off for being a minor.

A few months after the fatal gang rape of a Delhi student in December, India's parliament passed a broad new law on sexual violence, which imposes a minimum prison sentence of 10 years and a fine of up to 1 million rupees ($18,000) for acid attacks. Comparatively, Bangladesh passed laws against acid violence in 2002, cracking down on the production and sale of acid — a move that Shah says dramatically decreased the number of attacks — and Pakistan passed a law in 2012 that raised the minimum sentence to 14 years in prison, which has tripled the conviction rate for perpetrators.

Shah says that India still needs to consider laws that control the sale and distribution of acid, as well as provide appropriate compensation for survivors — as health care costs related to acid attacks can be astronomical, and medical insurance is uncommon in poor, rural areas. (Mukherjee appeared on a popular Indian game show in order to pay her surgery costs.) But in the end, Narain says that legislation is only a small part of the solution.

"There is a tremendous gap between rights and reality [in India]" she told me. "State institutions have failed women and the lack of law enforcement is a major reason why violence against women is under reported." She notes that while laws are important, what India needs is "cultural change" and that "can only come from concerted grassroots action, from educational initiatives... and from democratic participation, where women's rights as equal citizens are recognized and enforced."

The father of Preeti Rathi hopes to spur this grassroots action, by putting India's lack of legal enforcement under the international spotlight. He writes, "Preeti was about to start a new life after working so hard for qualifying her Job as a Nurse in the Indian Navy... her excitement and enthusiasm was cut short due to madness... that person does not deserve to live freely in the society and we hope that he is brought to justice as soon as possible."

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Dana Liebelson is a reporter for Mother Jones. A graduate of George Washington University, she has worked for a variety of advocacy organizations in the District, including the Project on Government Oversight, International Center for Journalists, Rethink Media, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Change.org. She speaks Mandarin and German and plays violin in the D.C.-based Indie rock band Bellflur.