Nita Bhalla

Nita Bhalla’s Profile

Acid attacks: the faceless women you can’t forget

July 30, 2011

Since I met her over a week ago, I have been unable to forget.

Every morning as I put on my lipstick and black eyeliner in front of the mirror, I am reminded of her face. Or lack of it.

Sonali Mukherjee, 27, is one of hundreds of women across the world who have lost their faces, and their will to survive, as a result of one of the most heinous crimes against women I have come across: Acid violence.

Nine years ago, three men broke into Sonali’s home in the east Indian city of Dhanbad as she slept, and threw concentrated acid over her face.

The highly corrosive chemical caused 70 percent burns to her face, neck and arms and melted away the skin and flesh on her nose, cheeks and ears – leaving her almost blind and partially deaf.

Sonali, who was a 17-year-old college student at the time of the attack, had rejected their sexual advances for months and when she threatened to call the police, they took their revenge.

Despite multiple painful skin reconstructive surgeries, she still looks nothing like the photographs taken before the attack – a smiling pretty, confident, young woman who took pride in her appearance and who wanted to be a teacher in India’s poor and marginalised tribal areas.

Sonali says she is living “half a life with half a face” and has endured so much mental and physical pain over the years, that she is now pleading with the government to allow her to end her life. Euthanasia is illegal in India.

According to London-based charity, Acid Survivors Trust International, around 1,500 acid attacks are reported globally each year, with 80 percent of them on women. Figures are likely to be much higher, though, as many victims are too scared to speak out.

Acid attacks are not specific to any one country, but are more common in India and other South Asian nations such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal as well as in Cambodia and Uganda.

Many of the attacks on women, like that on Sonali, are simply because men in these deeply patriarchal societies cannot handle rejection of love or a marriage proposal by a woman and decide to take revenge.

In a conservative culture where women are largely still judged by their looks, rather than by their attitudes, education, career or achievements, throwing a bottle of cheap and easily available hydrochloric acid over them is guaranteed to ruin their lives.

No one will marry them, employ them or even want to be seen with them. Their families, which are often poor, are burdened with the expense of years of medical treatment and soon run out of money – forcing victims with “half faces” to hide indoors, isolated and unable to return to the life they once had.

Despite the long-term financial, medical and psychological support vital for victims, little compensation, if any, is given by authorities.

As a result, these faceless women are left forgotten – but if you meet them, you simply cannot forget.

See Sonali’s story here.

Photo caption: Nita Bhalla and Sonali Mukherjee pictured at a Sikh temple in New Delhi which has given Mukherjee shelter. Photo taken on July 22, 2012 by Ahmad Masood

  • About Nita

    "Based in New Delhi, Nita Bhalla is correspondent for humanitarian affairs for the South Asia region for the Thomson Reuters Foundation. She primarily focuses on the impact of disasters and conflicts on local populations as well as good governance and women's rights issues. Prior to that, Bhalla worked as political and general news correspondent in India and before that, in Mauritius as correspondent for the Indian Ocean region. She started her career in journalism in 1999 with the BBC World Service in Ethiopia and has spent much of her time in Africa and Asia."
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