In a landmark ruling, Nepal’s Supreme Court last month ordered the government to fix its laws to ensure that victims of an acid attack receive immediate compensation and critical care.
Acid attacks – a vindictive form of violence meant to disfigure and maim a person for life – are on the rise in most developing nations, particularly in South Asia.
Bangladesh, for example, has for many years been notorious for this form of attack. But effective legislative reforms in Bangladesh are inspiring advocates in other countries, like Nepal, to pursue legal protections for future victims.
According to Nepal’s law, as it currently stands, anyone found guilty of domestic violence can be sentenced to up to eight years in prison, fines of up to 300,000 rupees ($2,909) and victim compensation of up to 200,000 rupees ($1939).
“In practice, only a tiny amount is ever given to a victim for treatment and nothing at all before any final decision is made in the case,” Sabin Shrestha, executive director of the Forum for Women Law and Development in Kathmandu, said in a press release.
“This means that victims are rarely able to afford the expensive medical treatment which they are likely to urgently need, causing them to suffer even more pain and putting them at risk of even more permanent harm,” he added.
The Forum for Women Law and Development filed the petition in September, along with another local organization and two victims – Rihana Sheikh Dhapali and Sangita Magar. Magar’s story captured the nation’s attention in early 2015, and “can claim to have laid the groundwork for the recent judgment,” according to Shrestha.
She was 16 years old and studying for an exam when a young man – Jiwan BK, who had become infatuated with her while living as a tenant in her house – broke into her classroom. He wanted to punish her for rejecting his advances, so he threw acid at her. It burned Magar’s face, chest, stomach and legs as well as her friend, Sima Basnet, who was nearby.
Magar still has not received official compensation, and although she has received treatment for the burns, she risks losing her eyesight as her condition continues to deteriorate, unless she gets urgent medical attention.
Dhapali, too, is still awaiting justice for the crimes committed against her by her husband and his family. According to Shrestha, the ill treatment, deprivation and beatings began after Dhapali’s family was unable to pay a dowry, which her husband’s family had previously said they didn’t want. She became a servant to her husband’s family, was forced to wash herself with mud, ate only leftovers, was beaten and on one occasion burned with a cigarette on her genitals.
But then one day, while she was seven months pregnant, her husband’s family tied her up and poured gasoline over her body. Her husband lit a match, and the family watched her burn to death – or so they thought. Three days later, she awoke and suffered a miscarriage. While in the hospital for her wounds, her husband reportedly tried to rape her.
Magar and Dhapali’s stories are horrific, but not in isolation. According to Burns Violence Survivors – Nepal, there are about 40 reported cases of burn violence and acid attacks in Nepal each year. Most are victims to their spouses, spurned suitors or family members because of dowry and other marital conflicts, land or property disputes or witchcraft.
However, the true number of acid and burn violence incidents is likely higher as the majority of cases are not reported to the police. Global statistics are therefore difficult to estimate, although it is most common in South Asia – and Bangladesh, in particular, which reported more than 3,000 victims between 1999 and 2013. However, because of legislative reforms, rates of acid violence have steadily decreased in Bangladesh since 2002 and many countries, including Nepal, now look to Bangladesh as a model.
“Assuming the government follows through on the court’s recommendation, justice will hopefully now be easier to access for all future victims of acid attacks or other burning – including the provision of free immediate treatment before a judgment is handed down,” Shrestha said. “The stronger law will hopefully also send a signal to Nepalese husbands and their families that they will no longer be able to get away with such horrific abuse of their wives.”
However, the changes may take time. According to a spokesman, the law ministry has not received a formal court order yet.
“Drafting the changes and completing parliamentary procedures before they become law will take time,” he said.
But progress continues to be made – however slowly. Last week, after an appeal filed by the Forum for Women Law and Development, the Supreme Court also upheld a decision of the district court to imprison Magar’s attacker for 10 years.
“We have fought for many years to this, a major step forward for everyone in Nepal, a country which prides itself on its peaceful outlook, but which has struggled for a long time with an epidemic of violence against many of our women and girls,” Shrestha said.