Indian government fails acid attack survivors, activists say

First published in Women Under Siege Project.

Acid Attack survivors

August 8, 2014

“Don’t you think I look much younger than my age? Everyone tells me that, you know,” 21-year-old Chanchal Paswan tells me excitedly. Then she stops. There’s a long pause. As tears well up in her eyes, she repeats each word clearly and very slowly.

“Actually, now I look like nothing … nothing at all,” she says.

As I sit across from Paswan, I carefully look at her face. She is right—almost nothing remains. There is just a stretch of dark, burnt skin. Her nose, lips, and eyelids have been razed almost entirely off her face. What was once a beautiful face has been now completely ravaged by acid. Her deep black eyes are all that remain, telling a story of the horrific violence they have witnessed—eyes that, despite the horror, are still vibrant and positive about the life that lies ahead.

In India, the battle for justice is on many fronts for women who survive acid attacks. They continue, in part, because the government has failed to regulate the sales of acid and police have repeatedly failed to even take reports of attacks. So beyond the punishment of specific perpetrators, activists and survivors are fighting to obtain compensation from the government. And beyond compensation, they want rehabilitation—something that could allow survivors to live with dignity and possibly overcome the consequences of this deadly crime.

Left, Chanchal Paswan before acid was thrown on her face. (Photo courtesy Paswan family). Right, after the attack. (Priyali Sur)

What government compensation does—and does not—do

In July 2013, after taking note of the rising number of acid attacks in India, the country’s Supreme Court directed the central and state governments to regulate over-the-counter sales of acids, according to reports. The court said shops should not sell acid to individuals under 18, and they must keep details of the quantities of acid sold and ask buyers for photo identification.

Yet today, a year later, these rules lie virtually impotent on paper. The central and state governments have not yet implemented them.

Every year, almost 1,000 acid attacks are reported in India, while many more go unreported, according to the London-based Acid Survivors Trust International. With no separate law in place for acid attacks, the National Crime Records Bureau does not have a record of the total number of attacks. A rough estimate from the New Delhi-based group Stop Acid Attacks puts the figure at a minimum of three cases a week.

In 2013, the Supreme Court fixed monetary compensation of Rs. 300,000 (approximately US$4,870) for each survivor of an acid attack, saying Rs. 100,000 (approximately US$1,623) should be paid within 15 days of the survivor notifying the state government.

Behind each of these numbers is a face that has been disfigured and a life that has been ruined. With that in mind, is the government’s compensation enough?

“Three hundred thousand rupees is nothing,” said Haseena Hussain, an acid attack survivor who has been through 35 plastic surgeries in the past 15 years. “Surgeries cost almost Rs. 2 million (US$32,400). My entire face is reconstructed—nose, lips, eyelids, everything. My parents sold off everything they had to pay for my surgeries—our house, my mother’s jewelry. After 35 long and painful surgeries, I realized that the surgeries were not making much difference to my face. So I decided to stop the surgeries and concentrate on my life.”

Hussain was 21 years old and lived with her parents in Bangalore. She dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. One day in 1991 she was on her way to work when her life came to a complete halt.

Left, Haseena Hussain before acid was thrown on her face. (Photo courtesy Hussain family). Right, after the attack. (Priyali Sur)

“He was from the Air Force and wanted to marry me,” Hussain said. “I rejected his proposal. So that day, right outside my office, he waited and the minute I reached [the office], he attacked me and poured sulphuric acid on me. I was aware of what was happening and started shouting and screaming for help, but no one came forward. My eyes were badly injured. Finally, I was taken to a private hospital, but they refused to admit me without a huge sum of money as a security deposit for medical expenses. At the government hospital, I just lay for three days without any medical attention. I was badly burned from my head to toe and had suffered 65 percent burns.

“Ideally, in an acid attack case, the skin should be removed immediately to stop the further spread of acid. But in my case, no doctor attended to me for a long time. The acid continued to spread through my body, and my injuries got deeper and deeper. After six months, I lost one ear, and after a year and a half I lost my full vision. Today, I’m totally blind.”

Hussain hides her emotions behind thick, dark glasses. As she fidgets with her fingers, she tells me, “You know, no one even helps me cross the road today. People are scared of the way I look and don’t want to touch me.”

Rehabilitation is a right: Survivors need more than money

A year after the Supreme Court fixed a sum for compensation for survivors of acid attacks, some say that state governments have failed to disburse the amounts.

“Not a single acid attack survivor has received acid attack compensation from the government in Bihar, despite the Supreme Court order,” Varsha Jagwalgekar a women’s rights activist from the eastern Indian state of Bihar, told me.

Late last month, India’s Supreme Court again issued notices to the central and the state governments regarding the treatment and rehabilitation of acid attack victims, reports said. The move came after a petition was filed in the Supreme Court that called for proper rehabilitation for survivors.

The petition was filed by the Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women, a coalition of organizations fighting for the rights of acid attack survivors in Karnataka in southern India, as well as the non-governmental organization Parivartan Kendra that advocates on behalf of women and youth in India, and the Human Rights Law Network, a collective of lawyers and social rights activists that work for advanced human rights in India.

According to Colin Gonsalves, a human rights lawyer and a founder of the network, Rs. 300,000 as compensation is a pitiable amount for someone who has been scarred for life. He says that the petition seeks compensation of a globalized figure of Rs. 10 million (approximately US$162,250) with a minimum of Rs. 500,000 (approximately US$8,100) for the survivor. The petition also demands free medical treatment supported by state governments and treatment by private hospitals.

Activists stress that rehabilitation cannot be a bargaining deal with the government for compensation. Mallige, an activist with the campaign, said the government should look at rehabilitation as a rights issue and not as sympathy. She told me that compensation has to be based on individual injuries and needs and that a standard package is not appropriate.

The petition also seeks comprehensive rehabilitation of the acid attack survivor that includes employment, education at all levels, and extending housing facilities. Most of the time, employers refuse to hire these girls and women. Meanwhile, the government denies them disability certificates that reserve them placement in jobs.

“The authorities do not consider deformity as a disability and don’t regard it as a livelihood loss,” said Mallige. “The rehabilitation scheme should include a disability certificate to assure them jobs.”

With an acid attack debilitating the survivor, it becomes difficult for her to function in mainstream society. Social ridicule and trauma lead to withdrawal from work and education.

“We tried very hard to find a job for Noorjahan, an acid attack survivor living in a slum in Bangalore,” Mallige said. “Every company we approached rejected her because of her deformities. No one even wanted to hire her as a domestic help. With no money and no access to medical care, Noorjahan ultimately succumbed to her injuries.”

‘Why should I hide my identity?’

Ostracization, financial constraints, and physical deformities completely break down most acid attack survivors—yet there are some who refuse to give up.

I saw Chanchal Paswan, a petite young girl sitting amid a group of other survivors at a national discussion on acid attacks. When I approached them for an interview, stressing that I would keep their identity hidden if they desired, Paswan said, “Why should I hide my identity? I am not at fault. I’m ready for an interview.”

Paswan comes from a small village called Chitnava in Bihar, one of the states known to have the highest number of reported cases of acid attacks in India.  She told me that she would be harassed by a group of boys every day on her way to school. At times, she said, they would even enter the vehicle she was traveling in.

“I wasn’t scared of them, but I strongly rejected their advances,” she said. “So one day they told me, ‘What are you so proud of? Your beauty? What will you do if you don’t remain beautiful any longer?’ I didn’t take their threat seriously. I should have. I clearly remember the date: October 21, 2012. It was a hot and humid night. My sister and I decided to put our charpoy [bed] on the terrace and sleep. I’d seen their bike parked outside my house for the past two days, but I didn’t think too much of it. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, I was woken up with a splash of hot fluid on my face. I screamed as it was burning tremendously. I thought it was boiling water or oil. All the boys ran away. No one could catch them. I was taken to a hospital, where I wasn’t allowed to see my face. Every time I’d request the mirror, my mother would make an excuse. Finally, one day, I was given a shiny brand-new steel plate to eat on. I saw my reflection on it and burst out crying. But that was just my first reaction.

“Today I’m not afraid of seeing my face. In fact, I spend hours looking at myself in the mirror, trying to see if anything is left of it or not. This incident has just changed my face but not changed me as a person. I’ve not lost courage, and they can’t defeat me. I’m going back to college next month. The only thing I’m unhappy about is that all the perpetrators are out of jail and roaming freely.”

Of the four accused of throwing acid on Paswan, one was released on the grounds of being a minor. The other three are out on bail. Paswan’s father, Shailesh Paswan, who isn’t as optimistic as his daughter, tells me that it’s been two years since the attack but that police have yet to record his daughter’s official statement under Section 164 of the Indian penal code. Without this, the family is unable to get compensation for her treatment, he said. Paswan is a day laborer and has to spend almost Rs. 20,000 (approximately US$325) every month on his daughter’s medical needs.

‘Acid should be thrown on him also’

Getting compensation for Paswan becomes more challenging since her case falls under “retrospective” cases: She was attacked in 2012, a year before the Supreme Court ordered the government to provide compensation to the survivors. While the current law does not compensate survivors retroactively, the petition now filed at the Supreme Court seeks compensation for all.

Hussain from Bangalore says she has suffered for 15 long years with almost no financial support. She talks softly, calmly but forcefully, stressing the need for a mass movement to raise awareness about acid attacks. As a survivor, in her mind she also has formed her own logic of justice. As she speaks, she hands me her small passport-size photograph taken much before the attack. It is a photo of a beautiful young girl with long, flowing hair who is smiling at the camera.

She takes the photo back from me, holds it tightly in her palms, and says, “I can’t fail in life. I haven’t got justice. His life imprisonment does not compensate me. The way he threw acid on me, acid should be thrown on him also. Only that will do justice to me.”

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