Long Waits and Little Money: Courts Fail Acid Attack Survivors

A backlog of cases has left women waiting years for justice.

Acid attack victims speak out in New Delhi. (Photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)

Sep 16, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

There are laws in place to protect women against acid attacks in India, from making it harder to buy the flesh-burning chemicals to government compensation for those attacked. But women are suffering at the hands of the justice system. A new report indicates that survivors of attacks wait years before they receive recompense—if they get any at all.

Legal proceedings for acid attack victims in India take an average of five to 10 years, according to a report released Wednesday commissioned by Acid Survivors Trust International, a U.K. charity working to end acid violence. Taking into account appeals, some court proceedings lasted 20 years.

Researchers analyzed 55 acid attack crimes in India dating back to 1991. Many of their findings confirmed past studies: The majority of the victims are women, the perpetrators are mostly men, and the primary reason for the assault was often refusal of a romantic or sexual relationship. Of the 55 cases, nine women received between 50,000 rupees ($750) and 5 million rupees ($75,000).

One of the study workers noted that the delays in litigation are not limited to acid attacks. “They are problems which ail any large jurisdiction or country with a large population, which is choking with the amount of cases," Poongkhulali Balasubramanian, told the Thomas Reuters Foundation. “The fact that these cases are prosecuted through the same system means they end up suffering from the same kind of delays and poor investigation.”

Prolonged litigation means victims not only have to wait for justice but are less likely to win their cases. Long wait periods can result in shaky witness testimonies and evidence tampering, according to the report. Balasubramanian recommends specialized courts and witness protection programs for women.

ASTI estimates that there are roughly 1,500 instances of acid violence around the world annually and that as many as 1,000 of those cases occur in India. Although the country reported 309 acid attacks in 2014, many attacks go unreported, as victims fear reprisal from their perpetrators.

With one of the highest rates of acid attacks in the world, India has instituted laws in the past two years hoping to treat survivors and restrict the sale of the chemical. Earlier this year, the government decreed that hospitals are required to treat acid attack victims for free and that the government must pay a minimum financial compensation of 300,000 rupees, or approximately $4,800. As the report only investigated cases that had been fully resolved by 2014, the effectiveness of this mandate for minimum compensation remains to be seen.

Critics note that past laws have not been enforced. The Supreme Court established strict regulations for those looking to buy acid, including identification, and forcing the seller to keep records and report purchases to the police in 2013. On the ground activists say that purchasing a liter of acid—which some use as bathroom cleaner—is as easy an inexpensive as buying a tube of lipstick.

Although the attacks are seldom fatal, they cause permanent disfigurement, including scarring, blindness, hearing loss, and peeled skin. Victims need multiple reconstructive surgeries to recover from an attack. Adding insult to injury, the disfigurement leaves women shunned by their communities, making daily tasks such as obtaining a job or going to the store difficult.