Trigger warning: Sexual Violence
The subjection of women to sexual violence, from eve-teasing to aggressive forms of sexual violence, has been on the rise. One such form of sexual violence is an acid attack- the “intentional act of throwing acid on an individual with the intent of harming, torturing, disfiguring, injuring, or killing them.” (Mittal, Singh & Verma, 2020).
Acid attack is a heinous crime that has a specific gender dimension in countries like India. In India, at least one case of acid attack occurs every day. The number of acid attack incidents reported in the year 2018 was 228, according to the National Crime Bureau (NCRB).
However, the country with the most number of acid attacks has fewer convictions – less than 5%. The possible reason may be a rejection of love or marriage proposals, refusal to pay dowry, rejection of sexual approach, property, or family disputes.
The result of acid attack is unbearable physical pain, along with psychological trauma and socio-economic consequences because of serval surgeries and the legal proceedings and make the life of victims worse than death. These attacks are not only a brutal act but also a human rights violation.
The research and experiences shared by acid attack survivors have highlighted that the impact of this violence is multifold. Recovering from the physical wounds is one leg of the journey. The attack leads to a traumatic and deep psychological impact on the survivor’s mental and emotional well-being.
Research findings have revealed that survivors showed high psychological distress levels, including social anxiety and avoidance, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. They face serious issues related to social isolation, primarily due to the stigma associated with assault and physical appearance.
Gilbert et al. (2004) reported that Asian women believe that their actions can bring shame and honour to the family. Victims of acid attacks also experience hopelessness at times, particularly about their future life. Some victims felt hopeless about finding a job, prospects of marriage, or about life in general.
These feelings of self-blame, low self-esteem, helplessness, and hopelessness can ultimately lead to increased suicidal ideation among the survivors. Most of these post-assault negative experiences are linked to the stigma, labelling, isolation, exclusion, and discrimination meted out to the society’s survivors at large.
An individual who has encountered facial disfigurement due to an acid attack faces stigmatization, in employment and social situations, they are discriminated against and isolated from society. There is very little chance of marriage for them, according to society.
Victims often tend to blame themselves for their plight even though the situation was not in their control. The stigmatization leads to poor social functioning and isolation from society and family. The physical and psychological aftermath of an acid attack severely affects the lives of the survivors.
Given that these attacks are not accidental but are deliberately caused to disfigure and harm the person, it is essential to understand how these survivors cope with their conditions. Different social support systems can play a significant role in helping the survivors of acid attacks cope successfully.
Various coping strategies are employed at different stages of the recovery process, including religious coping (turning to God for strength, praying frequently); avoidance-based coping to deal with the ‘threatened identity’; emotion-focused coping to deal with the extremely negative feelings and problem-focused coping mostly when they come out of their struggles and move towards betterment.
These strategies can help survivors incorporate the disfigurement into their overall self-concept to lead a better life and regain a sense of normalcy and connection. However, efforts have to be made at a larger structural level to provide support to the survivors.
Along with societal stigma and psychological difficulties, survivors have to face medical, legal, and financial hurdles. The actual statistics may indicate severe under-reporting, and a larger number of survivors have chosen to remain anonymous due to social stigma.
Various government and civil society interventions have come forward. Ria Sharma’s non-governmental organization (NGO) Make Love Not Scars; Sahas Foundation, an NGO founded by survivor Daulat Bi Khan; and the “Stop Acid Attacks” campaign (2013) by Chhanv Foundation, which led to the subsequent formation of Cafe Sheroes Hangouts to employ survivors.
Thus, the acid attack survivor requires a holistic approach inclusive of treatment, rehabilitation, trauma, and legal counselling.