On the evening of July 23, Pabitra Karki had just stepped out of her home in Sitapaila, Kathmandu, to buy yogurt when Mohamadd Alam offered to drop her to the market and back on his motorbike. She obliged because she knew the man. Little did she know that the same man had kept a hired hand on standby a few metres away, ready to hurl acid on her. The acid would burn half her face, physically and psychologically scarring her for life.
Karki’s case is not an isolated incident; if anything, acid attacks have become increasingly common in recent years. Despite legislative measures that have deemed acid attacks criminal, they continue to be one of the most brutal manifestations of violence against women and gesture towards a patriarchal society’s deepseated prejudices against women.
In Karki’s case, the suspects are Munna Ahmed and Alam. According to SSP Shyamlal Gyawali of the Metropolitan Police Division, Ahmed has confessed to carrying out the attack, but that he did so under the instructions of his boss, Alam. Ahmed also claims he wasn’t aware there was acid in the bottle he was given, and had thrown it at Karki believing it to be alcohol.
According to the police, Karki, along with her sisters, was first acquainted with Alam while working at his bag manufacturing factory in Dallu for two weeks around three years ago. Sunita Thapa, one of the victim’s sisters, said that 47-year-old Alam, who hails from Rautahat, had regularly been in touch with their family and had even borrowed money from her in the past.
Gyawali told the Record that the investigation is still in the preliminary phase to determine the actual motive behind the crime, but he indicated that it might have been a case of unrequited love. One of the most common reasons for acid attacks across South Asia is the vengeance of a spurned love interest looking to release his anger on a woman who has rejected his advances. According to experts, it is one of many examples of toxic masculinity internalised by men that allows them to justify harming women.
Misogyny and gender-based violence
Media reports and police records show that at least eight people have come under acid attack in Nepal since 2018. In 2019, Dolma Rumba from Chitwan and Jenny Khadka from Dolakha were attacked by their own husbands, while Muskan Khatun, a teenager from Birgunj, was attacked on her way to school by boys who had long been harassing her. In 2018, in Nawalparasi, Basanti Pariyar was attacked by her neighbour. The same year, Samjhana Kumari Das from Rautahat was attacked by her sexual abuser and died while undergoing treatment while her sister Sushmita Kumar Das was still receiving treatment for the burns she had suffered.
The perpetrators in all recent cases were male, except in the case of Ramraja Thapa, who in March of this year, was allegedly attacked by his wife. While instances of acid attacks have been increasing all around the world, trends show that in western countries, the victims are more often men, whereas in developing countries in South Asia, East Asia, and Africa, an overwhelming majority of victims are women. While this shows how acid is being weaponised by those who intend to cause physical harm to others, reasons vary between regions. There is a strong correlation between the prevalence of misogyny in a region’s socio-cultural milieu and acid attacks on women. In the South Asian context, in particular, the gendered dimension of acid attack cannot be ignored.
According to Subin Mulmi, a lawyer and researcher specialising in gender, any society’s propensity for gender-based violence reflects its deeply patriarchal roots. “Heinous crimes like acid attacks occur — irrespective of incidental reasons — because of our view of women’s agency over their own bodies,” says Mulmi.
The more normalised the patriarchal forms of violence are, the easier it is for male members of that society to undermine women’s right over her body. It is no coincidence, therefore, that young women who refuse to remain passive in the face of sexual or romantic advances and actively say no to men — thereby asserting their agency — are often the ones who fall victim to acid attacks.
Reliable data is hard to come by, but gender-based violence continues to be a serious problem that plagues Nepali society. In the fiscal year 2076-77 alone, the Nepal Police registered 14,774 cases of domestic violence, 2,230 cases of rape, 786 cases of attempted rape, 211 cases of sexual abuse, 258 cases of trafficking, and 86 cases of child marrage. It is safe to say that the actual numbers far exceed what has been reported, as many cases never make it to the police due to discouragement from family members, lack of access to police stations, social stigma, and even outright threats. Women, therefore, experience physical and sexual violence in a culture where they face both more subtle and pervasive forms of discrimination and misogyny on a daily basis.
In an online talk titled ‘When and how acid attack ends’, organised by the Nepali Congress on July 31, advocate Bishnu Bashyal pointed out how such attacks are part of a larger problem of how women are viewed and treated in our society. “As long as the constitution deems women second-class citizens, advertently or inadvertently, it will continue to reinforce our rooted patriarchal beliefs and mindsets,” she said, drawing the connection between acid assaults and the current citizenship debate, which highlights how women continue to be treated unequally.
How acid works
In a society where a woman’s worth is established on the basis of her physical appearance and marital association, permanently deforming a woman’s body — and more specifically her face — can be perceived under patriarchy as the most severe form of punishment, irreparably damaging her chances at being considered ‘beautiful’ or a suitable romantic or marital partner.
The way in which the first recorded case of acid attack has been described — which took place inside a Rana palace and is narrated through the words of Rishikesh Shah in his book Modern Nepal: A Political History — is remarkable in its patriarchal undertones. It revolves around Rana Prime Minister Bir Shumsher’s liaison with Khanjan, a Shrestha girl working as a maid for Kancha Bada Maharani Toph Rajyalakshmi.
“After Bir started having a liaison with the girl, his wife, in utter despair, had once sought to blind her by pouring arsenic into her eyes when she was fast asleep. Her eyes were luckily saved, but the acid burn left a permanent scar on her beautiful face as a constant reminder of what she had to go through to rank and power in later life,” Shah writes.
While Shah’s perspective appears to measure the assault in terms of how the acid left a “permanent scar” on her “beautiful” face, the loss of one’s beauty hardly sums up the pain and trauma experienced by acid victims. Firstly, acid is a highly corrosive substance that burns the skin and eats away at the flesh, causing permanent damage not just to appearance, but to the functioning of vital organs, often resulting in loss of eyesight and even leading to death. For instance, according to a 2018 news report, Sangita Magar, who was attacked in 2015, still needed to wear plastic tubes on her nostrils and ear canal three years later to prevent them from closing. Even if survivors make the initial recovery, they require multiple surgeries, spread across several years, in order to reconstruct facial features and to improve the range of facial movements. Treatment is very expensive and, for many, unaffordable, diminishing the prospect of recovery.
Minakshi Rana, co-founder and president at Astitwa Nepal, a not-for-profit working with burn and acid survivors, says that the psychological toll on acid attack survivors is immense. Through her organisation, she has been involved in providing psychological support to survivors, but stresses how the primary need is to ensure physical health. Generating funds in order to help survivors undergo surgery is critical in the initial stages.
“That is the first psychological support,” says Rana. “Depending on the severity of the physical injury, our being present at the hospital, standing in front of survivors and their families, is in itself a huge sign of support. Deep psychological counselling comes only much later.”
Acid and the law
Since the attack on Magar in 2015, Nepal has taken several measures to curb instances of such crimes. In 2018, Nepal enforced a landmark penal code, which among other things, envisions a penalty of upto Rs 300,000 and a sentence of five to eight years, depending on the seriousness of the attack. The offender could face homicide charges if the victim dies.
“The law itself was not viewing acid attacks seriously before Sangita Magar’s case,” says Mulmi. “Acid attack was not considered an offense, and was included in other forms of assault — such as simple battery or grievous hurt — for which there are less severe punishments: smaller sentences, less penalty, and easy bail options. Now, the new penal code recognises acid attack as a separate crime, with more severe punishments.”
According to Mulmi, this is meant to act as a deterrent. “This is a heinous crime,” he adds. “And while it was difficult to convince the court of this earlier, now the law acknowledges its severity.”
On July 29, police chiefs Sailesh Thapa and Maheshor Neupane met Karki, the latest victim, at the Kirtipur hospital where she is undergoing treatment. The duo assured her justice while giving assurances of free treatment until recovery. On the same day, protesters affiliated with various women rights groups held a rally in Maitighar, demanding stern punishment for the culprit and justice for the victim.
Even though one of the results of the 2018 Supreme Court decision was that acid and burn victims were to be given immediate financial support from the government to cover treatment related costs, victims still struggle to receive these funds.
Lawyer Punyashila Dawadi, who is associated with the Legal Aid and Consultancy Centre (LACC), says that while financial support was reaching victims after the decision, it has been more difficult for victims to receive funds in recent times. According to Dawadi, the ongoing federal restructuring process has disrupted the flow of funds.
“So, even while funds are allotted, there is confusion regarding which local body is to disperse these funds,” Dawadi says. “It would be highly practical for the local level attorney’s office to provide these funds through lawyers working directly with victims.”
Another piece of legislation that got passed has to do with the availability of acid. Experts agree that easy access to arsenics has definitely contributed to this problem. Dawadi was amongst the team of lawyers that presented a writ petition to the Supreme Court demanding the prohibition on sales of acid, and while the SC gave its verdict in 2016, the ban has not been put into effect yet. Acid continues to be easily available, and mechanisms to track purchases don’t exist currently.
“Banning the sale of acid is a band-aid solution, but band-aid solutions are also extremely critical,” says Mulmi. “Ultimately, though, it is a reflection of the society we live in. To address the root cause would take years.”
He also notes that the conversation often ends at criminal investigation, prosecution, liabilities and victim compensation and stops being about the real cause. “How does masculinity become violent? What are the different factors that come into play when men take such actions? I think this is a very important conversation,” he says. “Patriarchy has so many layers to it, and we need to have conversations that uncover all these layers.”