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Acid attack survivors in India find safe space but little legal respite #Vaw

| KumKum Dasgupta

Lax response from states as laws to restrict sales of acid fail to stem crime and survivors are left waiting for compensation KumKum Dasgupta in New Delhi
Tuesday 9 September 2014

theguardian.com

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/sep/09/acid-attacks-india-legal-respite

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On a summer afternoon in July 2013, Rupa and Laxmi, both 22, stood huddled quietly at one corner of the sprawling lawns of the supreme court of India, under the shade of a mango tree. They were waiting for the outcome of a public interest litigation (PIL) that Laxmi had filed. Both women had survived acid attacks: Laxmi was attacked in 2005, Rupa in 2008. The PIL sought a ban on the sale of the toxic liquid.

That day ended on a happy note: thanks to the PIL and relentless prodding by the courts, the central government said it would treat acid as a poison and apply the Poisons Act 1919 to regulate its sale. The reclassification meant that shops would need a licence to sell acid, buyers would have to submit a photo identity card, and sales were banned to anyone under 18. There was a flurry of media reporting on the case and the states promised to do their bit for survivors.

Over the past 12 months, Laxmi has become a celebrity of sorts: she has received national and international prizes, including the International Women of Courage Award, presented by US first lady Michelle Obama. She frequently takes part in talkshows on women’s issues and recently, she and four others, including Rupa, modelled for a photo campaign against acid attacks.

Unfortunately, little has changed on the ground due to the tardy implementation of the new laws by the states. Few have taken notice of the sales restrictions or paid survivors compensation, which is mandatory under a parliamentary law passed in April 2013. Acid is still widely available for less than 50p per litre.

The result has been a continuance of acid attacks against women and men. In July, the supreme court once again expressed concern over the growing number of attacks and reprimanded states for their lax response.

According to Stop Acid Attacks (SAA), a group based in Delhi that works with survivors and has collected data on the crime, most attacks in India are against women aged between 21 and 30 (76%); 83% of attacks happen in public places; 70% of victims are women; 75% of the survivors have 21-40% burns; and many attacks occur because women have rejected men’s advances (51%).

The national crime records bureau has begun to record attacks but the data is not comprehensive; it estimates that there are up to 1,000 attacks a year. According to SAA, the centre has received more than 200 reports of attacks since January 2013, although it suspects that the real number is much higher.

“There has been no concerted effort to stop acid sale. It’s freely available even in Delhi,” says Ashish Shukla, a member of SAA. “We could never meet the [previous] home minister. Even the new minister does not seem to have time for us. Regimes change but the attitude towards these crimes doesn’t.”

When it comes to compensation and medical help, there is no clarity in most states about which department will take responsibility. It is left to the survivor and family to find help. To end this confusion, SAA wants local authorities to build centres modelled on the one-stop crisis centre for women, which was recently inaugurated in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, to help acid attack survivors.

Fed up with the state’s attitude, survivors and SAA have launched Chhanv, the country’s first support and rehabilitation centre for acid attack survivors.

“When we launched SAA, we noticed that many survivors, who came to Delhi for treatment and surgery, had to spend their days on the road … We realised they need a clean, safe and comfortable environment for themselves and their families,” says Shukla.

Chhanv operates out of a three-room flat in a middle-class area of east Delhi. “Getting a place for Chhanv has not been easy for SAA … we hope this landlord will not ask us to leave at the end of the one-year contract,” says Shukla.

Rupa, who is now one of the residents of Chhanv, is studying fashion design and hopes to open a boutique. “The shelter has given me a reason to live,” she says. “We are like a normal family, we share the household chores, celebrate birthdays … and when a new survivor comes in we provide her with all kinds of help, especially emotional support.” She says she will return to her village only when she is financially independent.

Her flatmate, 19-year-old Ritu, who was attacked by her aunt’s son over a property dispute, adds: “Chhanv is a support system that families cannot provide because we have all faced the same trauma and only we can understand each other.”

But perhaps the best tribute to these survivors came from a 19-year-old college student, Kusumkali Pal, who volunteers for SAA: “It is not easy to overcome the horrors of facial disfigurement. But if these girls are really brave … I feel motivated meeting them and if these girls can move on with life, anyone can.”

e Case-

Rape and Sexual Assault on four minor girls and their mother by family members. The mother works as a contract worker in JNU, the father of the four girls is unemployed

and is now supporting his wife and children after initial reluctance to go against the culprits.

The five survivors all of different age groups belong to one family and have been subjected to repeated sexual assaults by known family members. The mother narrates that she had to experience the trauma of being raped/sexually assaulted by her father in law several times since her first child was born- she at least indicates two such instances, which are also mentioned in the FIR no.112, dated 19.03.2013- filed in Sangam Vihar P S.

As clear by her account familial pressure prevented any action into punishing the guilty by dissuading the aggrieved mother. The father in law started sexually assaulting the two older grand-daughters(now 13 and 14 years of age) when they were 7-8 years of age as indicated in the chargesheet and FIR , however this could have started at an earlier age as well. The father in law even after being confronted by the mother did not stop at this and later when the lady had twins(both now 6 years of age), started to sexually assault them as well. The sexual assault on one of the four girls has been confirmed in MLC No 2616/2013). Chargesheet has been filed in the case, u/s IPC 376/354 and 4/ 6 POCSO Act.

Of Continuing Violence and Defunct Institutions.

Just because the woman had dared to visit the police, the ‘honour’ of the family was avenged by two equally sick brother in laws who took turns to rape the woman in her house- in front of her children(the woman appears to be too traumatized to state the exact sequence of events especially because of the agony of repeating her ordeals several times, however it can be said that the incident took place sometime in March) !!!! . This particular incident finds no mention in the police records, perhaps because the worker was too afraid or even hopeless.

However these men like their father also engaged in sexually harassing the minor girls, especially after complaint was filed against their father. An FIR no. 395, dated 18.07.2014, in Sangam Vihar P S, u/s 354/506/34 IPC & 10 POCSO Act has been filed regarding the same- surprisingly the sexual assault on the mother of the children by her brother-in-laws is not mentioned in any of the FIRs.

These two men have got anticipatory bail ! The family is being threatened by several relatives who have also engaged some goons. A complaint in the police station has been filed by the aggrieved family regarding the threats- the police has been extremely uncooperative in this regard. The water and electricity connections have been cut by the in laws for filing complaints.

The SHO of Sangam Vihar PS, had gone to the extent of pressurizing the minor girls so that they could change their statements. Even medical tests were conducted after inordinate delay. The police has continuously been trying to reframe the case as one related to property dispute !! It is very unfortunate that even some NGOs who were supposed to help the children in trauma have subscribed to this ‘property narrative’ and the only remedy they can provide is sending the children to ‘shelter home’.

It is equally discomforting that the case is being dragged so long (the first FIR-no 112- dates 19.03.2013) and clear guidelines regarding expediting such cases under POCSO Act have been flouted by the ‘honourable’ courts- the model guidelines say such cases must be resolved within one year from the date of reporting. The affected family’s sole bread earner is a contract worker- her meager pay (which again goes against existing laws like CLARA) and adverse working conditions which are bad for male workers and worse for females ( these are true for all contract workers in JNU ) add to the misery of the woman.

Hopefully some positive developments will take place with some intervention from the civil society.

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