Shabnam (name changed on request), was 27 and just married, when life as she knew it changed forever. As she stepped out of the learning centre in Panipat, where she was pursuing an MBA and also working part-time, a man threw acid at her.
Kanpur-based social activist Alok Dixit and Laxmi.
“I suffered 12% burns. My face and chest were scarred for life and I lost complete sight in one of my eyes. My other eye was damaged too, but after very long and expensive treatment, doctors have been able to save it. I will, however, have to be on medication for life,” she says.
That was in 2009. She has undergone 12 surgeries since then to reverse some of the damage caused. That attack did more than physically scar her for life. “My husband left me after the attack. Ours had been a love marriage, against the wishes of our families, because we were from different communities,” recalls Shabnam, who blames her former boss for the attack.
“My boss, who owned the learning centre where I studied and worked, used to harass me. He is married, with a son, and had also threatened that he would never let me go away from him. I had already paid my course fees for three semesters, which is why I wanted to finish my course, but I had put in my papers at the job and was to leave at the end of the month. The attack came before that,” she says.
Even as the media celebrates the relationship that Alok Dikshit and Laxmi share, there seems to be no end to the horror experienced by many acid attack victims who continue to live a life of pain and neglect. Alok and Laxmi met at the Delhi office of Stop Acid Attack, a group started by Dikshit to create awareness against such attacks and to help rehabilitate victims.
Drawn by Laxmi’s courage and spirit, they became friends and then fell in love. But they don’t want a traditional wedding ceremony. “A ceremony means little. You need love to carry on with a relationship. For society, appearances assume utmost importance at a wedding. I have suffered enough insensitivity from society in the past. I don’t care for that kind of display anymore. We are happy in our relationship,” Laxmi says.
Often, victims have to fight not just the pain and stares but also comments that blame the victim, the insinuation that “she brought it on herself”.
“On average, we hear of three cases of acid attacks every week. The actual number is far more. There are no official records, since acid attacks till recently were not recognised as a separate crime under the Indian Penal Code” says Dikshit, adding, “Women between aged 15 to 25 are the most common targets and rejection in love and domestic strife are the usual motives behind the crime.”
In the aftermath of the December 16 gang rape, the government amended the Indian Penal Code, making acid attack an offence punishable with 10 years to life imprisonment and a fine that could go up to Rs. 10 lakh. In November 2013, the Delhi High Court termed acid attacks as one of the most “horrifying forms of gender-based violence”.
The Supreme Court (SC) in July 2013 had directed states and Union Territories to frame rules to regulate the sale of acids and other corrosive substances and make acid attack a non-bailable offence.
The court also directed that victims be paid compensation of at least Rs. 3 lakh by the state government concerned as an after-care and rehabilitation cost. An apex court bench headed by Justice RM Lodha also asked the central and state governments to work together and make the necessary rules under the Poison Act, 1919 for making acid attack a non-bailable offence.
However, victims and activists claim that ground realities have changed little. “So many times in the past few months I have heard hawkers coming to sell acid in my locality, supposedly for the purpose of cleaning toilets. You have so many varieties of toilet cleaners available in the market today, why would you need acid? A few times, I have called the police to report such open sale and purchase of acid, but no action was taken,” says Shabnam, a Delhi resident.
Activists say the situation is worse in the villages, where even the police is often unaware of the court directives.
Victims demand stringent laws to check the crime. “I am suffering every day and will continue to do so as long as I live. My career, dreams of finding love have all been taken away from me. I shy away from going out of the house. Punishment for perpetrators should match the agony I am going through and put the fear of the law in others, so that they tremble to commit such a heinous crime,” says a victim who doesn’t want to be named.
Some activists, however, view the recent judicial stand on acid attacks as a beginning. “It will take time to create the necessary system to check such crimes. But things are looking up. Public awareness has grown. With the changes in the Indian Penal Code and Supreme Court directive, I see a change happening,” says Rahul Varma, national director and CEO of Acid Survivors Foundation India.
State compensation, as directed by the SC, is for those who have been attacked since the passing of the directive. Sadly, there is little relief for those who have been suffering for the past many years. Meanwhile, Shabnam continues to struggle to not be a burden on her family, with whom she has been living since her husband deserted her.
“My brother is the sole earning member and has a wife and children. In our society when a married girl comes back to her family, she is looked upon as a burden. My brother also has to bear the cost of my treatment. I have recently found a job with Stop Acid Attack so that I can at least buy my own medicines,” she says.
“My former boss is a powerful man. He would threaten me on the phone and I didn’t name him in the FIR. But recently after some activists approached the Haryana government to seek compensation for me, they persuaded me to reopen the case. I mentioned him in my complaint. But his wife took the blame on herself and said she was jealous of her husband’s attention to me and therefore had acid thrown on me. They were summoned by the police, but are out on bail. My own lawyer is reluctant to continue with the case,” she adds.
“Acid attacks are carried out because of discriminatory attitudes”
There is no national database to statistically track cases of acid violence. Many cases go unreported. To combat acid violence on a sustained basis, reliable statistics are necessary.
Estimates vary from 500 to 1000 cases a year; based on research conducted by our Indian partner, Acid Survivors Foundation India. Figures received from the West Bengal government indicate 55 acid assault cases with 77 victims, mostly against women, over the last six years; this means an average of 10 cases per annum.
Considering that there are 28 states and 7 union territories, it gives a plausible figure of about 350 cases per annum, excluding unreported incidents. Most acid attacks are carried out because of discriminatory attitudes in society towards women and girls. These underlying reasons need to be addressed if acid violence and indeed other forms of violence against women and girls are to be challenged and eradicated.
Both Pakistan and Bangladesh have introduced specific laws relating to acid violence and the control of acid. Pakistan still faces challenges in the implementation of laws at a provincial level in the control of acid and the appropriate gender sensitisation of the relevant government agencies, the police and judicial apparatus.
However, Pakistan has seen a significant increase in prosecutions over the past year. Laws were enacted in Bangladesh over 10 years ago and the country has since seen a dramatic reduction in the number of attacks.
There were approximately 500 recorded attacks in 2002. In 2012 the number had dropped to under 100. There is much that can be learned on addressing acid violence between these neighbouring countries who have a shared history, culture, and sadly, a high prevalence of acid and burns violence.
- Jaf Shah, Executive Director - Acid Survivors Trust International, a London-based organisation that works with partners in Bangladesh Cambodia, Uganda, Pakistan, Nepal and India
Family’s sole breadwinner
Aarti was 22 and working as a sales consultant in an IT firm when she was attacked in January, 2012. “I was about to board the local train to return home from work when the attack took place. A man with his face covered came from behind a pillar and threw the acid at me,” says Aarti, who was engaged to be married at the time. She suffered 10-15% burns “mainly on my neck, chest and arms. I had my face covered with my dupatta, but a few drops fell on my face,” she says. This was not the first attack on her. “A month-and-a-half before this, a man had attacked me with a knife and stabbed at my face. I had required 17 stitches”. The acid attack came after another knife attack on Aarti that had left her with minor injuries.
Investigations revealed that Aarti’s former landlady and her son, who wanted to marry Aarti, had hired the attacker. “They were arrested and confessed to the crime, but are out on bail. The case has been dragging,” says Aarti. Meanwhile, the family is going through a financially turbulent time. “My family consists of my mother, sister and me. I was the sole breadwinner. Doctors have told me that cosmetic surgery can remove almost 80% of the scars. I want to have the surgery before I start working again. But we have no money. I wish some individual or organization would provide me financial assistance to tide over this tough time,” says Aarti.
The attack has also raised questions on the future of her relationship. “I am still in a relationship with my fiancé, but I don’t know where we are headed,” says Aarti. “His family says I must have encouraged the guy, or he wouldn’t have felt so aggrieved as to attack me,” she adds sadly.
“Suffering for no fault”
Archana was 19 and a student of class XII when she was attacked with acid in a UP village in 2008. “A neighbour’s brother had expressed an interest in me and would tease me on the roads sometimes. I told my family and the village elders about it. They told him to leave the village. The attack came several years after I had turned down his offer of marriage,” says Archana.
She received 45% burns in the attack and lost an eye. She has just undergone her 28th surgery. “There was no case filed because the boy consumed poison before attacking me and died. We left the village because our neighbours were not supportive. Some even blamed me of having encouraged him,” she says. Her father, who had been a farmer in the village, and her mother both fell ill as a result of her attack.
Her 22-year-old brother is now the sole earning member in the family. Recently, Archana started studying again. She wants to finish school and is also pursuing a computer course. “There should be more stringent laws on acid attacks and the government should give jobs to victims. We are suffering for no fault of ours,” she says.
“There should be an acid attack victim in Parliament”
Sonali Mukherjee, from Jharkhand, was attacked with acid in 2003, by some local youth, whose comments she had protested against. She was burnt beyond recognition, lost a ear, vision in both eyes and suffered many more ailments as a result of the attack. She is currently undergoing treatment at a Delhi hospital. In November 2013, 10 years after the attack, the Jharkhand government offered Sonali a job.
“I am thankful but I hope it is something I am physically able to do. My abilities have been restricted after the attack,” she says agreeing that the offer was late in coming.
Last week, she met Rahul Gandhi at a Youth Congress event in Bangalore and presented a charter of demands including “a total ban on retail sale and purchase of acid, that the expenditure on treatment of an acid attack victim be borne by the government, jobs for victims, Rs. 50 lakh as compensation, that acid attack be made a non-bailable offence and hearing should be fast tracked, death penalty for attackers and that any aid or income of the victims be exempted from taxes.”
“I also demanded that there should an acid attack victim be nominated in Parliament and state Assemblies, because only another victim can understand our problems,” she said.
In 2012, Sonali competed and won on the Amitabh Bachchan hosted Kaun Banea Crorepati, but rues that a big chunk of her winnings went into paying taxes. She is happy that Laxmi has found love. “But it is a rare case. If society was indeed that sensitive, why haven’t I received any offers of marriage?”