Disfigured victim’s plea to die exposes India’s acid violence


Source: Trustlaw // Nita Bhalla

Sonali Mukherjee, 27, sits in a room temporarily offered by a Sikh temple during an interview in New Delhi July 22, 2012. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

* Acid attack victim says can no longer endure suffering

* India needs strong laws on acid attacks, says U.N.

* Concentrated acids cheaply and easily available in India

By Nita Bhalla

NEW DELHI, July 27 (TrustLaw) – They came in the dead of night, broke into her home as she slept and poured a cocktail of acids over her face — burning her skin, melting her eyelids, nose, mouth and ears, and leaving her partially deaf and almost blind.

Her crime? She had spurned their sexual advances.

Nine years on, Sonali Mukherjee, 27, is appealing to the Indian government for medical support for skin reconstructive surgery as well as tougher penalties on her three assailants, who were released on bail after only three years in prison.

Either that, she says, or authorities should give her the right to kill herself. Euthanasia is illegal in India.

“For the last nine years, I am suffering … living without hope, without future. If I don’t have justice or my health, my only way out is to die,” she says, sitting on a bed in a sparsely furnished room above a Sikh temple in south Delhi.

“I don’t want to live half a life, with half a face.”

Sonali’s desperate plea highlights the heinous crime of throwing acid on women in India, the lack of support for victims, and lax laws which have allowed attackers to get away with what activists say is the equivalent of murder.

Acid violence – where acid is intentionally thrown to maim, disfigure or blind – occurs in many countries across the world, and is most common in Cambodia, as well as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India where deep-rooted patriarchy persists.

Around 1,500 acid attacks are reported globally each year, with 80 percent of them on women, says London-based charity, Acid Survivors Trust International, adding this is a gross under-estimate as most victims are scared to speak out.

There is no official statistics for India, but a study conducted by Cornell University in January 2011 said there were 153 attacks reported in the media from 1999 to 2010.

Many of these attacks, said the study, are acts of revenge because a woman spurns sexual advances or rejects a marriage proposal.

“These men feel so insulted that a woman could turn them down and have an attitude of ‘If I can’t have you, no one can’,” says Sushma Kapoor, deputy director for UN Women in South Asia.

ISOLATED AND DISFIGURED

With a bright future ahead of her, Sonali was a 17-year-old sociology student in the city of Dhanbad in India’s central state of Jharkhand when the attack happened back in April 2003.

The three men were her neighbours and harass ed her as she left for college every morning. When she threatened to call the police, they took revenge, leaving her with 70 percent burns to her face, neck and arms.

An Indian court handed down nine-year jail terms to each of her attackers. But within three years, the men were out on bail. Her appeal against their release has yielded little results, says Sonali, and she continues to worry about her safety.

Unlike countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, where acid violence has in recent years been listed as a specific offence, India still categorises it as grievous hurt, dolling out penalties which are lenient and jail-terms which are bailable.

“The actual attack is just the start of a life of suffering. Most are disfigured and blind. They face years of physical and mental pain and need rehabilitation,” says Sushma Varma, founder of the Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW), a Bangalore-based voluntary group.

“In most cases there is no help, no support, no money.”

With a rising number of reports of such attacks, the cabinet this month approved a proposal to make acid attacks a separate offence, making it punishable by 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to 10 lakh rupees ($180,000). This will now have to be approved by parliament.

But victims and activists say the government must also look at regulating the sale of locally produced household cleaners, which contain highly concentrated acids, that are easily and cheaply available in local markets across the country.

Acids are increasingly being used as weapons, like guns, they say, but there are no licensing laws for those who sell and purchase these deadly chemicals which also include neat hydrochloric and sulphuric acids.

“You can buy highly concentrated chemicals like those used on me in most markets for less than 50 rupees a bottle,” says Sonali. “This is enough to ruin a woman’s life. They may not have killed me, but I might as well be dead.” (TrustLaw is a global hub for news and information on good governance and women’s rights run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. For more, visit http://www.trust.org/trustlaw) (Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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The Word on Women – Acid violence: the faceless women you can’t forget


By Nita Bhalla publishe in Trustlaw

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.

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

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.

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