Major Win for Acid Attack Survivors: India Orders Free Reconstructive Surgeries

India’s top court orders medical and monetary support for women and girls disfigured by chemical assaults.

Acid attack survivors protested outside Parliament in New Delhi in December 2014, demanding budget allocations for rehabilitation, cosmetic surgeries, and training for hospital staff. (Photo: Vipin Kumar/'Hindustan Times' via Getty Images)

Apr 18, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

It’s a cruel crime that is shockingly common in many African and Asian countries: throwing acid in a person’s face, leaving them disfigured and often blind. As many as 1,500 people are attacked with acid every year. Most of them are women and girls, often ones who have rejected a marriage proposal or sexual advance or somehow accused of bringing shame to their families. They are left struggling with medical bills and a life hobbled by disability.

Now, India’s Supreme Court is taking landmark steps to make things easier for recovering sruvivors. Last week, the court ordered all hospitals to treat acid attack victims for free, including food, medicine, and reconstructive surgeries, reports the Times of India. It also decreed that state governments must pay victims a minimum compensation of 300,000 rupees, or approximately $4,800. “We find that amount will not be burdensome” to state governments, the justices wrote in their decision. But it could mean a lot to individual victims in a country where the median per capita income is barely over $600 per year.

Acid attacks are carried out in many countries and by people of diverse religions, according to the British-based Acid Survivors Trust International. But they are most common in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. The Indian government alone officially documented 309 acid attacks last year, although activists say the number could be far higher.

The attacks are rarely fatal but “cause severe physical, psychological, and social scarring,” says ASTI. Survivors can’t be cured with a single operation, the group says: they “need long-term access to a holistic program of medical support, rehabilitation, and advocacy.” That typically includes a dozen or more hospital visits. The damage can be extensive: acid eats away skin, fat, and sometimes even the bone underneath. Some victims lose all or part of their eyelids, eyes, lips, noses, ears, and hair. In addition, many disfigured survivors are ostracized from their communities, making it difficult to earn a living or find social and emotional support.

“The lack of rehabilitation is one of the biggest problems that survivors face,” Alok Dixit of the Indian group Stop Acid Attacks told “Most victims come from poor families and therefore cannot afford the full medical treatment and just get very basic treatment. Others end up selling off all their assets, including property, to pay for these surgeries, and they end up in debt.”

The legal system has taken steps to curb attacks. In past rulings, the justices have imposed stronger controls on sales of acid, and India recently became one of just a few countries with laws explicitly criminalizing acid attacks. The hope is that this will encourage more victims to come forward; as it is, many survivors don’t report the crime because they or their families often blame the victim for bringing the attack on herself, or because they fear further reprisals.

ASTI works with organizations in six countries to support victims and lobby for change, and the results so far are positive. In Bangladesh, the number of acid attacks fell from 496 in 2002 to under 100 in 2011, according to the group. That’s still far too many, but along with the Indian court’s recent decision, it’s a solid step in the right direction.