‘I want the world to know what happened to me’ – acid attack victim turned campaigner

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April 5, 2013

Nearly 1,000 acid attacks occur every year in India. One young victim is campaigning to prevent them.

April 5, 2013

Nearly 1,000 acid attacks occur every year in India. One young victim is campaigning to prevent them.

Nasreen Sharif, an acid victim who is totally blind, poses in Islamabad, Pakistan. Nasreen is from the small village of Shakna Ganeshpur in Punjab, she was burned when she was only 15 years old after rejecting a marriage from a much older man who was her father's cousin.

“Go ahead,” Chanchal Paswan tells the photographer. “I want the world to see what has happened to me.”

The 18-year-old’s face is a mess of pain and ravaged flesh, a mouth that can barely open and spaces where her eyelids and ears had been.

Remarkably, this same face is also a source of defiance. In the weeks since the teenager was attacked with acid by four young men, she has put herself forward as part of campaign to demand that India’s government do more to prevent such assaults and to punish the culprits. She has insisted people should not look away.

Acid-throwing is not a crime that is unique to India. From Afghanistan and Pakistan to Bangladesh and parts of South-east Asia, there are hundreds of cases of lives being destroyed by such attacks. Almost without exception, it is women who are the victims.

In India, activists estimate there may be as many as 1,000 attacks a year. Until recently acid attacks was not defined as a crime in India, and data on their frequency was not collated. It was only in the aftermath of the gang-rape of a Delhi student in December that legislation was passed last month, finally recognizing acid attacks within the Indian penal code and setting a punishment of 10 years’ imprisonment.

However, campaigners believe the government can do much more to prevent such attacks. Seven years ago, India’s highest court directed the government to take steps to restrict the sale of acid, and yet nothing has been done.

Chanchal Paswan was attacked as she slept alongside her 15-year-old sister, Sonam, who is partially-sighted, at their home in a village 10 miles from Patna in the state of Bihar, where her father is a day laborer. Her alleged attackers were four young men, one of whom had proposed to her a year earlier, who was apparently angered by her rejection. Her sister was injured too and will also likely be scarred for life.

Sitting on a bed at a charity-run guesthouse close to the hospital in Delhi where she had come to see a specialist, Chanchal told The Independent she had been taunted by the young men. She described how they had mocked her as she made her way to computer classes. Her mother and father stood next to the bed as she recounted her story, anguished beyond measure.

“I started going to computer class to help me get a job. My dream was of becoming a computer engineer and supporting my family,” she said. “What has happened to my dream now?”

As in many incidents of acid-throwing, the issue of caste was also a factor for Chanchal. Her family is Dalit, previously known as the “untouchable” caste, and traditionally located at the bottom of Hindu society. Her alleged attackers were from a higher caste.

“The boys would often taunt me. They would pull my scarf and call me names. I protested to them,” Chanchal said. “One man would say to me ‘You take too much pride over your face. I will spoil it for you.’”

“These boys often said they came from a higher-caste family. They would say, ‘You are Dalits, you are powerless. Whatever we do, we will be able to get away with,’” she said.

On 21 October last year, the attackers crept into Chanchal’s home at night while she slept on the terrace. One of them held her legs, another her arms and a third threw acid in her face. Some of it splashed on to Sonam’s arm.

“I did not know it was acid,” Chanchal said. “It felt like someone had thrown hot water or oil on me. I was trembling and there was smoke coming off my body.”

Awakened by the screams of her daughters, Paswan ran to them and started throwing water on Chanchal, desperately trying to douse the burning.

She said neighbors came and watched but did nothing to help.

“For us this was an acid attack but for them it was like watching a festival,” said Chanchal’s mother, Sunayana. The teenager’s attackers apparently made no effort to run away. “They were laughing and enjoying the moment,” said Chanchal.

Chanchal was taken to Patna Medical College and Hospital but her family said she was only given basic treatment and staff refused to admit her until the following morning when television cameras arrived. No one from the hospital could be contacted for comment.

At Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital – where Chanchal was brought with the help of an NGO – the teenager has undergone surgery to release the constriction of her lower eyelid.

“She has lost all her face,” said Dr Rakesh Kumar Kain, a cosmetic surgeon who is part of a team that treats 20 such cases a year and which has been developing new facial reconstruction techniques.

“She has no lips, eyelids, the skin on her neck has fused with her chest. Also there is some loss of vision.”

The doctor said victims also suffer intense emotional trauma.

Sitting in his office, where he keeps a photographic record of other cases on his computer, Dr Kain said the severity of injuries depended on two factors – the strength of the acid and the amount of time it was on the flesh.

In Chanchal’s case, the burns were deep. “She will need at least 15 operations,” he said. Sonam will also need to undergo operations to release her elbow, which has become fused as a result of the attack, and for skin grafts along her arm.

Pragya Singh was attacked with acid seven years ago by a member of her extended family angered by her decision to get married. She said victims need emotional and financial help, and authorities must to do more to prevent such attacks.

“If [the punishment] were life imprisonment or the death penalty that might help,” said Singh, who lives in Bangalore. “Also, things like sulfuric acid are too easily available. Anyone can get it.”

Alok Dixit, of the recently formed Stop Acid Attacks campaign, said that, in addition to punishing perpetrators, the government also needed to provide free medical treatment and even jobs for those who have been attacked. “There is no policy to minimize the pain these people suffer,” he said.

Subhas Chakraborty, of the Kolkata-based Acid Survivors Foundation India, said several state governments, including West Bengal and Goa, had taken steps to control the sale of acid. “But the central government and the other state governments have not done anything,” he said.

In Chanchal’s case, police in Bihar said four men have been charged over the attack. The officer dealing with the case ended a telephone call from The Independent when asked for further details, and the state’s police chief did not respond to calls.

The office of the chief minister Nitish Kumar said the case was “a criminal matter” and failed to say if anything was being done to control the sale of acid. The federal government’s ministry of women and children’s development said it could not immediately respond to questions.

Chanchal has to return to Delhi in May for her second operation, one that will release the scar tissue that has fused her neck to her chest. She and her family make the trip back and forth to Bihar by a 12-hour train journey.

Though her life has changed beyond measure, Chanchal says she is determined to continue her studies. “I will go back to school,” she said. “I will cover my face if I have to.”

Sisters burnt in random acid attack by man

Four sisters from north India have suffered serious burn injuries after two men on a motorbike verbally abused them and one of the men threw acid on them as they were returning home from school earlier this week.

The incident took place in the Shamli district of Uttar Pradesh, about 60 miles from Delhi, when the sisters – three of whom are employed as teachers – were returning home from a government school.

“The victims were walking together when two men on a motorbike made lewd remarks and the man who was riding pillion splashed acid on all of them,” police officer Abdul Hammed said.

Hameed said no arrests had been made and the motive behind Tuesday’s crime was unclear.

He added: “The youngest sister suffered maximum burn injuries and she had to be rushed to a hospital in Delhi.”


Courtesy: Daily Telegraph