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."

After the attack, Mahalakshmi spent a year and half in and out of the hospital, receiving more than 15 plastic surgeries.

"I felt like my life was over," she says. "I've gone through a lot of suffering. But the grace of god, my parents and my education — that's what has come to my rescue."

She has been able to lead a more normal life than many of the victims of acid attacks. In a country where half the women do not know how to read, according to the latest census, Mahalakshmi has her clinic.

"For a woman to come out of this, she needs to be mentally very strong. I am a doctor, and I have patients in need. This is what I want to do," she says. "I do my work very sincerely. My profession is everything for me."

Mahalakshmi says many of her new patients ask what's happened to her, a question she has slowly been forced to get used to. As women, advocates say, the victims suffer especially because of their looks.

Acid attacks "disfigure the body and the face to a very bad extent," says Varma of the campaign against acid attacks. "Nowadays due to the commodification of women, the body and the face have become very important. [The attacks] disfigure them for life."

Mahalakshmi urges her fellow victims, as best they can, to ignore the stares and the questions. "Don't care about what others think about your disfigurement," she says. "You need to have courage to do your work."

Many Attackers Go Unpunished

The man Mahalakshmi says poured acid on her was acquitted in a lower court. Advocates say the government is not doing enough to help acid victims, although there is a plan being floated that would somehow compensate them, with money or jobs.

The solutions, they say, are to severely restrict the availability of acids and change the legal and police system. Men who attack women need to be punished more severely and not let out on bail, as Mahalakshmi's former landlord was, advocates say. And the police need to take the threats more seriously.

Mahalakshmi continues to be haunted by that day, but she laughs throughout an interview with ABC News and is able to talk about the details of her attack.

"There are good people, too, in society," she says when asked what victims who aren't living as successfully as she is should try to think about. "Take them into your confidence, and try to live alone."

And that is the heart of her message, one that is as challenging as it is revolutionary. She was attacked while she was alone. She wants others to turn what might be a weakness into a strength.

"Try to live alone. This is how you teach them a lesson. This is how you beat them. Be brave. And be independent."