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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 181
March 13, 2005

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Human Rights analysis

Shattered Reflections: Acid Violence and the Law in Bangladesh

Saira Rahman Khan

I never wanted to look into a mirror again"….. "Why do people think it is my fault?"….. "The pain was unbearable and I wanted to die" ….. "I am afraid to go home because the person who did this to me is still roaming free."…. " I am only 15 and I want to go back to school"… such are the words of girls and young women who have been victimised with acid. Needless to say, the flinging of acid on the face and body of a person in truly a heinous act vengeful and calculated. It leaves both physical and mental scars, which usually stay for life. The victim will always be in pain. The old saying goes 'hell hath no fury like a woman scorned'. However, when it comes to acid violence, things are a little different. A large majority of the women who have fallen victim to this are those who have rejected marriage proposals and proposals for sexual relationships, the perpetrators being the scorned suitors. To date, the perpetrators of acid violence have always been men.

What makes a man so vindictive that he must throw acid on a person in order to seek revenge? Are there any socio-cultural factors that affect the male members of society to such an extreme that acid violence is the only way in which to resolve a dispute? Why is it that in a group of friends, only one will think about throwing acid? There are, unfortunately, no concrete evidence as to what compels a person to throw acid. However, if we look at the tool used, we see that it is comparatively cheaper that a knife or a gun, it can be thrown from a distance - avoiding proximity and giving the perpetrator time to flee the scene - and the result is painfully permanent. The perpetrators are mainly unemployed, frustrated youth, and, due to a lack of recreational facilities in rural Bangladesh, whose idle minds sometimes became the 'devil's workshop'. If such a youth was rejected by a young woman, that might be construed as an insult to his masculinity and that is when acid may seem to be the most effective means to make the girl remember her 'mistake'. The concept of women as chattel or objects is, sadly still regarded in the patriarchal society of Bangladesh. The fact that the perpetrator has the time to buy the acid and lay a plan on how to administer it, shows the cold-blooded nature of the crime.

What happens when a person is attacked with acid? Unless treated with water immediately after the attack, acid corrodes the skin, burning its way down to the bone. In some instances, the bone also melts away. Needless to say, the pain is excruciating. Treatment is also painful, as the burnt upper layers have to be gently peeled away to allow for healthy scar tissue to form. There is always the fear of infection and victims who have large areas of their bodies burnt are rendered immobile. What of the availability of acid? Unfortunately, acid it sold openly in chemist and homeopathy shops and local medicine dispensaries and can be found in goldsmith workshops and shops selling and repairing car batteries. It is also openly sold around the tannery factories. Despite the law, there are no checks as to the trade in acid and other corrosive substances and those selling the liquid ask no questions. There is even, allegedly, a good trade in cross-border smuggling in acid, which may play a role in contributing to the high rate of acid violence in the border districts.

The laws
The President of the Peoples' Republic of Bangladesh approved the Acid Control Act 2002 and the Acid Crime Control Act 2002 on 17 March 2002. The laws were promulgated to meet the demands that acid crimes be controlled and perpetrators receive swift punishment and that the trade in acid and other corrosive substances be guarded by legal checks and balances to prevent their easy accessibility.

A lot of though has been given to the drafting of these laws, especially in the area of compensation to the victim, carelessness of the investigation officer, bailability, magistrate's power to interview at any location, medical examinations and protective custody, the setting up of an Acid Crime Control Council and (District) Acid Crime Control Committees, establishing rehabilitation centres, licences for trade in acid, etc.

According to the Acid Crime Control Act, this law aims to rigorously control acid crimes. It houses stringent punishments ranging from the death sentence to life imprisonment, to between fifteen to three years and a hefty fine. The variations of punishments depend on the gravity of the crime. For example, if the victim dies due to the crime, or totally or partially looses sight or hearing or both or 'suffers disfigurement or deformation of face, chest or reproductive organs', the punishment is the death penalty or life imprisonment. Interestingly enough, the Act provides that if the Acid Crime Control Tribunal feels that the investigating officer has lapsed in his duty in order to 'save someone from the liability of the crime and did not collect or examine usable evidence' or avoided an important witness, etc., the former can report to the superior of the investigating officer of the latter's negligence and may also take legal action against him.

The Acid Control Act has been introduced to control the "import, production, transportation, hoarding, sale and use of acid and to provide treatment for acid victims, rehabilitate them and provide legal assistance". The National Acid Control Council has been set up under this act, with the Minister for Home Affairs as its Chairperson. Under this Council, District-wise Committees have been formed albeit, only in six or seven Districts to date. Members of the Council include the Minister for Women and Children Affairs, Secretaries from the Ministries of Commerce, Industry, Home Affairs, Health, Women and Children Affairs, and representatives from civil society as specifically mentioned in the law. This allows for a broad spectrum of representation. More importantly, according to this law, businesses dealing with acid need a license to do so, and the government has arranged for a Fund to provide treatment to victims of the violence and to rehabilitate them, as well as to create public awareness about the bad effects of the misuse of acid.

The realities
Despite the Acid Laws of 2002, why do annual figures on reported incidents of acid violence continue to stay above 300 (where almost 85% of the victims are women)? Why is it still so easy to procure acid and sell it openly without a license? According to studies carried out by the Acid Survivors Foundation, there are several reasons for this and for why the law is not being implemented properly. Some of the more noteworthy reasons are as follows:

There is yet to be a separate, modernised Investigation Department with trained investigators in the police force and overburdened police are unable to carry out their investigation duties properly. This may result in hurriedly written reports and inefficient investigation. Many NGOs have called for the formation of a separate department, but pleas fall on seemingly deaf ears. Furthermore, there is not follow-up done as to whether businesses are procuring licenses for the sale and trade of acid.

Doctors are unable to identify acid burns, due to lack of training and medical certificates are not clear and sometimes vital information is not noted down, thus weakening the evidence. Furthermore, many doctors are reluctant to come to court to give evidence. Lack of sufficient judges and judicial officers in the lower courts causes delay in hearings and cases are either not heard on time or remain pending.

Many of the above findings are applicable to other sectors where lack of implementation of the law causes serious damages in matters pertaining to violence against women such as rape and dowry-related violence. This being the case, why are no steps being taken to rectify the matter? Issues of violence against women still remain in the medieval era in the country. Non-government organisations are doing their bit to create awareness against acid violence and the social and legal repercussions it has. The government is now legally bound to do its share, under the 2002 Acid Laws. A lot of power has been given to the National Acid Control Council and it must gear up its activities and not wait for NGOs to prompt it into action.

The writer is an Assistant Professor, School of Law, BRAC University.


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