Scarred victims of acid attacks struggle to get their due
Sapna is a 21-year-old woman from a lower-middle class family in the Nand Nagri area of eastern Delhi. Her face is scarred by acid. Last August, her 32-year-old relative hired men to throw it in her face as she returned from her part-time job as a helper at an adhesives factory. The relative was angry because she rejected his marriage proposal.
She was supposed to receive 300,000 rupees (around $4,800) from the Delhi state government to help her with medical bills, according to a directive from India’s Supreme Court. Of this amount, 100,000 rupees or $1,600 was to be given within 15 days of the attack. But it took six months for Sapna to get her due.
Sapna is not the only person to have suffered bureaucratic difficulties and indifference that make it hard to move on from the initial attack, according to anti-acid attack activists.
“I was attacked in front of the policemen. When I asked them to catch those guys, they said don’t worry, it’s just a chemical, it won’t cause much damage,” said Sapna, whose father used to work as a security guard at a hospital.
There have been 225 reported cases of acid attacks on women from 2010 to 2012, according to a response from the National Crime Records Bureau to a Right to Information request filed by this reporter. Thirty-one were reported in the New Delhi region, and activists say the number of actual cases nationwide is much higher than what has been reported.
Acid attacks are a way of causing permanent damage or dishonour to a woman, frequently happening after she has spurned a man’s advances, or due to other family reasons leading to such violence. Activists claim 80 percent of such attacks happen when a man gets angry after a woman spurns a marriage offer or other attempts to start a romantic relationship. Among hundreds of millions of poor Indians, particularly in the country’s north, they are a form of revenge that, if it does not kill the victim, leads to physical disfigurement, ostracism and the inability of victims to work.
Financial compensation for loss of income and for medical aid is a right that women and their families do not necessarily know that they have, said Ashish Shukla, a former journalist who helped found the group “Stop Acid Attacks”. In theory, victims should receive 300,000 rupees from the state government wherever the acid attack occurs, with a third of that reaching the victim within 15 days of an attack. Depending on the surgery and post-attack support required, it often is not enough to cover all the costs.
“She should not run from pillar to post,” said Shukla. “She should know where exactly she has to go to collect her financial help, which again should be provided immediately because if you give the money after two-three months, it is of no use. Not necessarily every victim has to be from a well-to-do family and in that case, she needs money immediately for her initial treatment.”
“Stop Acid Attacks” is relying on fundraising websites such as Indiegogo, Bitgiving.com and social media, and Shukla says so far, they have been able to raise around 1 million rupees (approximately $16,000) from around the world through crowdfunding.
Acid is widely available because of its use in laboratories, jewellery shops, as toilet cleaners and for various other activities. But the increasing number of acid attacks led the Supreme Court to issue guidelines in July to restrict its sale.
Even with awareness, activists still must contend with bureaucracy and questions about who is responsible for providing aid to acid attack victims. Take the case of Shalu Jain, a 28-year-old former insurance company saleswoman from Udaipur in the state of Rajasthan. A man and his accomplice attacked her in 2009 as she rode her motorbike.
The attacker had been stalking Shalu and tried to abduct her one day. Shalu slapped him and three days later, the man took revenge by throwing acid.
“I was on my two-wheeler. Those two men came close to (my) vehicle and threw acid multiple times,” Jain said. “I fell on the road and my leg got fractured as my vehicle fell on it. The entire left portion of my body sustained severe burns. My face, neck and shoulder suffered contractures and [my] left eye [was] badly damaged.”
A series of promises for help that Shalu said came from the National Commission for Women (NCW) and the Rajasthan state government ultimately led to nothing. “All the expenses of my plastic surgery were borne by my parents who had taken me to my hometown Meerut in Uttar Pradesh,” said the former insurance company saleswoman.
Shalu says the surgeries cost her family around 1.5 million rupees (around $24,450), with total expenses including medication running as high as 2 million rupees (around $32,600).
Mamta Sharma, chairwoman of the commission, said that securing the money is outside her purview. “It’s an old case. Sometimes she says, ‘get me a flat from the government housing board’… The government is not ready to bear her expenses. We don’t have any power. It is as clear as that, and she should also understand this. Commission does not have any powers… I really want to help her but don’t know how.”
Shalu disputed this. “I did not ask for the house, they only promised me. Also, I never wanted it for free, and had written to the administration that I was ready to pay the entire cost of the house in instalments. When they do not have any power, why do they make such promises?”
Girija Vyas, who was chairwoman during the attack and who initially counselled Jain and her husband on where to receive treatment, said the office tried its best. “When I was the chairperson, I helped her in treatment. NCW chairperson can only make recommendations,” she said.
Shalu met former Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, but made no progress. State Governor Margaret Alva has provided her with security, however, because the attackers are not in custody. Shalu said her attackers offered her 2.5 million rupees (around $40,800), asking her to withdraw her case but when she refused, they threatened to kill her daughter. Then she asked for a police escort.
“My attackers were out on bail within seven days of the incident and they are still roaming free. The case is still going on in court and the charges were framed last month. Sometimes I think of going to court for compensation also, but then, I think the verdict won’t come even after my death. I tried to take some other acid attack victims along, but they refused to join this fight, saying when I could not achieve anything despite being an educated woman, what would they be able to do,” Shalu said. “Every time I met somebody, they said they would write a letter. I just want to know, where those letters have gone.”