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Acid Victims Have a Lot to Undo

NEW DELHI, Mar 31 2013 (IPS) - Her face covered with a maroon  scarf and with large old -fashioned goggles hiding her eyes, Sonali Mukherjee lived one of the most cherished moments of her life when she earned a jackpot on a show hosted by Indian film star Amitabh Bachchan.

Chaperoned by Bollywood actress Lara Dutta, she went on to win the prize money of 2.5 million rupees (46,000 dollars) on the Indian version of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’.

But almost blind, she could not see Bachchan. Her eyes were severaly damaged in an acid attack in 2003. She was a sociology student in Dhanbad in eastern India when three men whose advances she had spurned threw acid on her face.

The fate of the 27-year-old is similar to that of many Indian women assaulted by sex offenders in gang rapes and vicious acid attacks.

The London-based Acid Surviors’ Trust International puts the figure of such attacks worldwide at 1,500 a year. But in India it can be a long road to treatment and to justice.

“What my sister is undergoing should not be faced by anyone,” her brother Debasish Mukherjee tells IPS. “What angers us is that the guys who did this got bail and are free. Why are they not arrested and punished?

“People should come out and protest. Society has to awaken. We want to see justice done,” says Mukherjee, whose sister is under treatment in a Delhi hospital now.

“She might be able to see with one eye perhaps after these surgeries. She has had 22 surgeries already and about ten more are to be done.”

Following the gang rape on a Delhi bus in December, acid attack on women has been included as a sex crime. Stronger punishments are now set out for stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks.

In October last year four men threw acid on 19-year-old Chanchal Paswan and her 15-year-old sister after they protested the sexual advances the men made.

“Four men from our district in Patna (in eastern India) had been harassing her for months. One night they got into our house and threw acid on Chanchal and her sister. The four accused have been arrested, but their trial hasn’t started yet,” their father Sailesh Paswan tells IPS.

In an online petition for justice through change.org, the father writes: “I’ve seen how public pressure forced the authorities to take action during the Delhi gang rape case and I want your help to ensure justice for my daughter.

“That’s why I started a petition on change.org telling the district magistrate of Patna to ensure speedy justice and provide adequate compensation. Chanchal narrates this brutal incident to me everyday as she struggles without proper treatment and compensation.”

Women’s rights activist Varsha Jawalgekar says that for the last nearly five months the Paswan family has been going from one court to another.

Moyna Pramanik, 29, of West Bengal state has been living with a scar for a decade now. Her husband and in-laws poured a mixture of acid and kerosene on her over dowry.

“I remember the day they pinned me down, and three of them – my husband, my sister-in-law’s husband and my mother-in-law, poured acid and kerosene oil on me,” Moyna tells IPS.

According to Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI), there is no proper record of acid victims. A Right to Information (RTI) petition in the state of West Bengal elicited a figure of only 56 recorded cases from 2006 to 2012.

“We found 53 recorded cases, 77 victims and 19  victims just in Kolkata. We believe there could be 700 to 800 recorded cases across India in the past six years,” says Dr Subhas Chakraborty, executive director of ASFI. The group works in association with the London-based ASTI.

“An acid attack in most cases is no less than a sexual crime. It is because the offender could not physically assault the victim that he throws acid on her,” Dr. Mukherjee tells IPS.

“When the Verma Commission (a panel under former Indian apex court judge Justice Verma formed after the Delhi gang rape) was drafting the new anti-sexual assault recommendations, we requested the panel to include acid attacks under sexual crimes,” says Dr Mukherjee.

Mukherjee says easy availability of acid in the retail market needs to be checked. “You can get a bottle of acid for just 50 rupees (a dollar) from the market.”

 
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