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07/07/2013

Will acid attacks on women in India stop now?

Acid
Indian acid attack survivor Sonali Mukherjee outside her temporary home in New Delhi.  (AFP photo)

In Mumbai, a city teeming with millions of people, Preeti Rathi is a name that many recognize now.

She was 23, pretty and vivacious. She died on June 1, a few days after a stranger threw a acid on her face as she was leaving a train station. She is one of the 56 cases of acid attacks reported in India’s financial capital in the past three months, an increase from previous months.

Until earlier this year, India did not even have a separate statute for acid attacks. And there are quite a few in the sub-continent. But a few months after the fatal gang rape and death of a young student on a moving bus in New Delhi spurred India’s parliament to pass new law on sexual violence, which includes a minimum sentence of 10 years and a hefty fine for acid attacks.

Now, her father has started a change.org petition and has collected over 40,000 signatures alleging local authorities have not adequately investigated the attack and that as a result, the perpetrator is still free.

Acid attacks are usually the result of domestic disputes, dowry demands, land quarrels or revenge. In many cases, they are a form of gender-based violence, perhaps because a young woman has spurned a marriage proposal or sexual advances. About
70 per cent of victims are women; half are under age 18. 

These attacks are common in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in Cambodia, Uganda and Colombia.

Very few are by strangers, as was in the case of this young woman in Mumbai.

But Bangladesh has been able to curb them.

In 2002, the Bangladeshi government, bowing to pressure from NGOs, passed two laws. One to speed up trials and the other tightened regulations on the use, storage and sale of acid.

Recorded attacks have since decreased about 15 per cent every year.

Can India do the same? Experts say that India still needs to enact laws to control the distribution and sale of acid and provide appropriate compensation to the victims. It will take a long time to do what Bangladesh did.

But Rathi’s father is undeterred. In his petition, he says:  

I demand justice for my daughter who suffered so much because of this criminal. After my daughter passed away, I met the home minister of Maharashtra, R.R.Patil, and demanded a CBI enquiry. He promised an enquiry but I have not been provided with any time frame for it.

The enquiry has not even started yet.

With every passing day, the chance of nabbing the culprit is getting bleaker. I have started this petition to ensure that the Home Minister keeps his promise and the enquiry is started as soon as possible.

Raveena Aulakh is the Toronto Star’s environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term, and wildlife. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh

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