Acid Attacks on Rise in South Asia

In Mahalakshmi's life, there is a day before and a day after.

The day before was Jan. 10, 2001. Her brown hair was pulled back, her brown eyes saw what she remembers as a "pleasant day," a day when the doctor went to work at her clinic in Mysore, India, and returned home to her daughter.

The day after, she lay in a hospital bed, where she would stay for the next month and a half. She had lost her left eye and her left ear and her body was badly burned after her former landlord, in a rage, poured a bucket of acid on her head.

"For someone born normal at birth, and leading a normal life, all of a sudden you become a disabled person. It is difficult to accept," Mahalakshmi, who uses only one name, told ABC News.

There are no national statistics on how many Indian women are the targets of acid attacks. But read the newspapers here and you'll find their stories, women having disputes over relationships or property or family, women who become the victims of crimes that physically and mentally ruin their lives.

The problem seems most acute in South Asia, although it is not restricted to this part of the world. The Bangladesh Acid Survivors Foundation reports that an average of 228 acid attacks have occurred each year since 1999. In 2002, in Pakistan, 750 women were injured in acid attacks, Human Rights Watch reported.

And in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, where Mysore is located, the Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women reports that 70 women have been attacked since 1999, but "there could be many more."

"This is another form of violence against women, and the patriarchal values that exist in societies are responsible for this horrific form of atrocity," Sushma Varma, the head of the campaign, better known as CSAAW, tells ABC News.

In Indian society there are multiple systematic ways in which women have become the targets of violence, from the burning of widows to the widespread aborting of female fetuses.

But acid is common here. Many Indians use it to clean their kitchens and bathrooms instead of bleach, and that's why it has become a weapon.

"Acids are easily available and they are used heavily for toilet cleaning too. They are highly concentrated, and due to that, the men find it an easy weapon to buy and use," Varma says.

They use them against Indian women such as Renu, who identified herself with only one name to the BBC when she described how she was showered with acid by her father's tenant in East New Delhi. Renu's sister describes how her "clothes were melting off her body as though they were plastic."

They use acid against Pakistani women like Shahina and her older sister Sakina, whose husband attacked both of them during an argument about his gambling and drinking habits, according to Human Rights watch. The acid blinded Shahina and burned 70 percent of Sakina's body.

'I Felt Like My Life Was Over,' but Then Healing Began

For Mahalakshmi, the attack came from her former landlord. She had left her husband in the late 1990s and was living alone with her daughter. Her landlord made repeated passes at her, and eventually she left and moved in with her parents, shifting her clinic to closer to her new home.

But the landlord wouldn't leave her alone, and she filed a restraining order against him. One day before he attacked her, she says, "he threatened me — if you don't take back the case, that will be the end of your life."

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