New Delhi: On night, in the year 2017 at the age of 17, Khushbu, an Uttar Pradesh-based woman from the town of Aligarh was sleeping next to her daughter and husband. At 3am, a knock on the door woke her up. Deciding not to disturb the others, Khushbu opened the door. “I found my father standing outside. Before I could speak, he threw acid on my face and ran away,” she recalled.
Khushbu’s screams woke her husband up, who informed the police and she was rushed to the hospital. “I learned that my father was involved sex trading and told him to mend his ways, or else I would inform the police. In turn, he had threatened to kill me. Since he is my father, I never thought he would actually try. He ruined my life,” she said.
Her life fell apart. Her husband began distancing himself and finally left Khushbu. After being in and out of hospitals, she underwent four reconstructive surgeries and due to strong medication lost a three-month-old fetus. “While I was doing the rounds at the hospital, my father was roaming around freely. The perpetrator of the crime spent just two-and-a-half years in prison and is remorseless after destroying my life,” she rues.
Under the acid attack victim compensation scheme, Khushbu is entitled to Rs500,000 (Dh25,540), but she has received only Rs300,000. Khushbu now works at Sheroes Hangout, a cafe run by acid attack survivors in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, and takes care of her three siblings.
Weapon of violence
Hundreds of acid attack cases take place every year in India. These incidents largely arise out of the rejection of unwanted male attention. Disgruntled fathers, disenchanted lovers, jealous colleagues or those seeking revenge against a family, make women their target.
200,000rupees is the cost of corrective surgery after an acid attack
Acid, as ubiquitous as toilet-cleaning liquids, are readily available at corner stores. Acid has emerged as the most preferred weapon of violence against women. While it destroys the skin in a matter of seconds, no amount of corrective medical surgery can bring the skin back to normal. Each surgery costs around Dh8,000 (Rs. 150,000 to Rs. 200,000)
Attackers will usually throw acid on the face, resulting in scarring, deformity and permanent injuries, like blindness for example. The treatment is a prolonged one and the victims go through several surgeries, each more painful than the one before. Scarred for life, they are ridiculed and feared and often held responsible for the attack not just by society, but also by their own families.
How dreams died
Anshu had always wanted to be a doctor and work in a hospital, however for the last five years of her life, she's been going to the hospital for treatment and reconstructive surgeries after becoming a victim of acid attack.
A resident of Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, she was often accosted by a 55-year-old man, who made advances towards her. Rebuked by the young girl, the man decided to teach her a lesson. The 20-year-old recollected: “I was sleeping in the courtyard of our house when the man threw acid on my face. As I screamed, my family came running and took me to a hospital in Meerut, about four hour’s drive from home.
I have taken everything in stride. But what hurts the most was that after the acid attack, my name was struck off the school rolls. I cried a lot that day.
“For over seven months I could not open my eyes, but i saw my dreams crashing. As if that was not enough, the offender, who was imprisoned, came out on bail and set our house on fire. Luckily, I escaped along with other family members. It was then that the village committee ordered the criminal and his family to leave town.”
As her case lingers in the court, Anshu hopes the man is given stringent punishment for his actions. While her face is disfigured and hands and chest scarred, Anshu has lost complete vision in the right eye. Her left eye barely has 30 per cent vision.
“I have taken everything in stride. But what hurts the most was that after the acid attack, my name was struck off the school rolls. I cried a lot that day. It is only due to the support of my family that I have regained my confidence and gathered the will to live and become self-sustainable,” she said.
An acid attack survivor, Laxmi is perhaps the role model for numerous women. After becoming a victim of acid attack, she has not allowed self-pity, but has taken life in her own hands and is doing relatively well for herself.
She is the inspiration for the Bollywood movie Chhapaak starring Deepika Padukone. In 2005, Laxmi, a resident of Delhi, was a 15 year old student, when she refused the overtures of a 32-year-old married man. One day, while she stood waiting for a bus to head to the bookstore, where she worked as a part-time salesperson, the man threw acid on her face and disappeared in the crowd.
With a bottle of liquid that probably cost him just Dh0.50 (Rs10), the man changed Laxmi’s whole life in just 10 seconds. For months, she could not find the courage to look into the mirror. When she did for the first time, Laxmi fainted. Her dream of becoming a singer was destroyed. After years of struggle, from undergoing corrective surgeries to looking for a job, she realised that many other girls were suffering the same fate. With a changed perception of life, Laxmi decided to pursue her studies. Education brought a renewed confidence in her and she stopped covering her face.
Supreme court order
Citing loopholes in the law and inadequate government policies, in 2013, Laxmi filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court demanding compensation for acid attack victims. The court ordered compensation of Dh15,420 (Rs300,000) to be paid by the state governments to each acid attack victim. The victim would get Dh5,140 (Rs100,000) within 15 days of the incident and another Dh10,280 (Rs200,000) within two months for treatment.
Despite the SC order declaring illegal sale and purchase of acid a non-bailable offence, anyone can still walk into a hardware store and purchase a bottle of acid.
However, after the National Legal Services Authority constituted the scheme, in 2018, the court ordered that if the damage to the body of the survivor is less than 20 per cent, then the amount would be minimum Rs300,000 and maximum Rs400,000. If the damage is less than 50 per cent, then minimum Dh15,420 (Rs300,000) and maximum Dh25,700 (Rs500,000). If the damage is more than 50 per cent, then minimum Dh25,700 (Rs500,000) and maximum Dh41,120 (Rs800,000) should be given to the survivor. Apart from this, if the face of the survivor is disfigured, then the minimum of Dh35,981 (Rs700,000) and maximum of Dh41,120 (Rs800,000) should be given.
The court observed: “It cannot be overlooked that acid attack victims need to undergo a series of plastic surgeries and other corrective treatment.”
It ordered free medical treatment to victims in government hospitals across the country. And also ruled that shopkeepers would need a licence to sell acid and a buyer had to submit a photo identity card to purchase it.
Durga Prasad, a data analyst at the Chaanv Foundation said: “Despite the SC order declaring illegal sale and purchase of acid a non-bailable offence, anyone can still walk into a hardware store and purchase a bottle of acid. As a result, the corrosive liquid continues to be utilised to destroy young lives.”
Prasad is of the opinion that the courts need to take rehabilitation into consideration and victims must either get jobs or monetary help with self-employment. “Presently, only voluntary organisations are assisting acid attack survivors and working towards their rehabilitation,” he said.
He also said that the compensation amount is seldom paid to the victims within the stipulated period. “Also, the government hospitals, where the victims are supposed to get ‘free medical treatment’, are totally ill-equipped to handle acid burn cases. Free treatment is not possible in private hospitals even today. Only in Delhi, private hospitals provide free treatment to the victims.
Under Section 326 A of the Indian Penal Code, a person found guilty of causing acid burns can get minimum imprisonment of 10 years, extendable up to imprisonment for life and fine. The fine is to be paid for the victim’s medical expenses. Section 326 B makes an attempt to throw acid a crime punishable with a prison term of five to seven years and fine if found guilty.
Depending on the case, men involved in the crime have been sent to prison — from two to seven years. Once out of prison, they lead a normal life after devastating the lives of their victims. The cases of several victims hang in the courts for years and while they spend each day struggling for survival, the offenders are able to come out of prison on bail.
An activist weighs in
Alok Dixit, who started an NGO Stop Acid Attacks in 2013, says, “People who scar a woman for life should be punished severely. But sadly, it is the women who are shunned — some by their own families and others by society.”
Dixit is working towards helping acid attack survivors rebuild their lives and to prevent further attacks. SAA comprises ‘Chaanv’ a shelter home for acid attack fighters undergoing treatment in Delhi. Located in Noida, it is the first of its kind rehabilitation centre in the country that not only provides shelter to the victims during their medical treatment, but also supports them to take charge of their lives after the incident. Numerous survivors have recovered with their grit and have become a source of inspiration and motivation for others.
Real life stories
I was 16 when I suffered an acid attack in 2014. The farmland owner, for whom my father worked, was interested in my mother. She spurned his advances. And when my father came to know of it, he left the job. The employer, a 45-year-old man, then decided to take revenge on the family by throwing acid on my paternal grandfather, who fortunately suffered only a few burns. Since we did not see the attacker clearly, the family let it go.
The surgeries left me depressed and I wanted to commit suicide.
But a couple of days later, while I was helping my mother prepare dinner, my father’s former employer came rushing towards us and threw acid on me. With my face, neck, hands and legs badly affected, I was taken to the hospital, where I struggled for nine months.
An FIR was lodged against him. But he had the guts to approach us by offering money to take back the case. Meanwhile, the surgeries left me depressed and dejected. I wanted to commit suicide. But seeing how my family had stood by me, I could not give them the pain of losing their daughter. I wish a brutal death for my attacker. But, despite the district court sentencing him to seven years of imprisonment, he was set free by the high court in 2016. Since then I've been offered a job at Sheroes Hangout cafe in Agra, Uttar Pradesh.
Until today I do not know why and who made me suffer so much when my life was going smoothly. In 2011, I was working with Yakult, the company that supplies a fermented milk drink. One evening while going home from the office, two boys on a motorbike threw acid on me and whizzed past the cycle rickshaw I was travelling in. About one kilometre away from home near the Delhi Cantonment area, I stood wailing on the road, but no one came to help me. Barely able to see, I requested auto-rickshaw drivers to take me to a hospital, but no one would come near me.
Since I never had any enemies, I feel it was a case of mistaken identity and I was destined to suffer.
Just then, an army officer, who was walking nearby with his family, stopped his vehicle and took me to the hospital, where I was admitted. When my husband and in-laws heard the news, they rushed to the hospital. With the right side of my face affected badly, I lost hearing power in one ear and one of my eyes is damaged. But I am fortunate enough that my husband and in-laws have stood by me and given me the strength to cope with life.
Since I never had enemies, I feel it was a case of mistaken identity and I was destined to suffer. Recently, with the help of Chaanv Foundation, I managed to cmomplete a beautician’s course and will soon be working at a beauty salon.
In 2004, at the age of 17, I was married off to a man, who we realised later, was of dubious character. He often abused and physically tortured me. He also didn't trust me. But thinking everything would be fine someday, I suffered silently, without discussing my problems with my parents. After some time, he began coming home in a drunken state and brought along women in my presence. Then, he stopped giving me money to run the house. I took up part-time jobs and somehow sustained myself.
Today, after multiple operations, I have 20 per cent vision in my right eye, whereas my left eye is totally gone
One day, he left home and ended up in Mumbai. He contacted me after eight months. I decided it was enough and resolved to leave him. I went back to my parents and to keep myself occupied, I started to earn a living with embroidery work. Soon, I filed for a divorce and it came through in 2010. But feeling disgraced and dejected, my ex-husband started troubling me over the phone and threatened to destroy my face and life. I never took it seriously.
In February 2011, while I was home alone, he barged into the house along with a friend and threw acid directly on my face, ruining my eyes and disfiguring me. Today, after multiple operations, I have 20 per cent vision in my right eye, whereas my left eye is totally gone. I now work as front-desk manager at a restaurant.