Tuesday, July 26,2016

KOLKATA: On July 12 this year, The Teldgraph reported that the Calcutta High Court issued an interim order asking the West Bengal government to pay a compensation of Rs 3 lakh to an acid attack victim within two weeks, a first in the state.

The order is in keeping with a 2014 Supreme Court verdict that said state governments would have to pay a minimum compensation of Rs 3 lakh to acid attack victims.

Justice Joymalya Bagchi directed the Bengal government to file a compliance report after two weeks along with documents related to the progress of the investigation. But it remains to be seen how far these legal solutions are made accessible to victims who are poor, illiterate and ignorant and know little about their existence. In the absence of awareness and free counselling, it is really difficult to assess how far such legislations will change the lives of acid victims, both women and children.

Acid attacks lie along the last-but-one spectrum of physical attacks on women and children, the last one being murder. But acid attacks, looked at in retrospect, are worse than murder because unlike murders, there is no closure for the victim. He/she lives on with the scars – physical and mental, that are never likely to heal because the medical infrastructure in the country is much less in supply than the demand, the expenses of plastic surgery are too prohibitive and the psychological scars remain forever. These victims will never smile again because their smiles are lost to time, forever.

The chemical agent used to commit these attacks is either hydrochloric acid, widely available in South Asian countries as a toilet cleaner or sulphuric acid from batteries. Because the chemical causes severe disfigurement, not death, this easily accessible chemical has become the popular weapon for attacks against women who refuse sexual advances and offers of marriage made by men. Acid attacks are not often classified as domestic violence, because they usually originate outside of the home. One cannot buy or sell acid across a shop counter because there are strict laws against it in India. Yet, there is no decline in the number of acid attacks in the country.

A smile is not just a reflexive muscle contraction that occurs spontaneously such as in new-born babies in their cribs. Nor is it a cosmetic expression thrown up by models for a toothpaste ad. A smile goes deeper than its face value. It makes the difference between life and living death.

No one knows this better than Samina Naz, General Secretary, Depilex Smile Again Foundation in Pakistan (DSF), founded with the sole aim of helping victims of acid attacks not only by trying to restore some of the smiles they think they have lost forever, but also by putting them on the road to self-sufficiency by training them to step into other things like the beauty business with the help of Masarrat, a trained beautician, who set the ball rolling. There is a regional office in Islamabad and they are planning to open one at Multan too.

“It was conceptualized in 2003 when a friend of Masarrat brought a girl with a mutilated face to her office. The girl was an acid victim. That day Masarrat thought that all this while, as she went on trying to add beauty to faces that were already beautiful, there were hundreds of young girls who were being stripped of their faces by some man or another simply because they were girls. She realized that she had to do something for these faceless girls. It changed her entire life and Masarrat decided to dedicate herself to bring back the smiles these girls had lost,” says Samina.

Depilex Smile Again gets support from Italy (SmileAgain Italy) whose doctors are extending wholehearted support to the cause of these survivors of acid attacks. The procedure for seeking help is quite simple. Acid attack survivors must find out the Depilex Smile Again branch nearest to their homes and get themselves registered there. The respective branches send he details of these victims directly to Samina. She goes through the case histories, takes a look at the photographs and then makes a priority list. Earlier, the service of the Italian doctors was available only at the Lahore head office. Then a French organization contacted them and French doctors began working with Depilex Smile Again at Family Health Hospital in Islamabad.

DSF plans to establish a rehabilitation and vocational training center in Lahore for acid-attack survivors. This would include hostel facilities, a small dispensary to cater to these victims and also for the poor and the destitute. These girls will be trained in cooking, tailoring, hairstyling and beauty treatments, computers, art and telephone operating. It is planning for placement in conjunction with fashion designers and so on. On the anvil is the establishing of rehabilitation and reconstructive surgery centers in different parts of Pakistan that would take care of psychological counselling and physiotherapy for acid-attack survivors.

Bangladesh has the highest incidence of acid violence in the world. Acid burns constitute 9% of total burn injuries in Bangladesh. Acid-throwing is an extreme form of violence where the majority of throwers are men and the majority of victim-survivors are women. Acid is a corrosive substance that can burn holes in wood and corrode metals. Thrown on a person, acid causes skin tissue to melt, frequently exposing the bones underneath or leading to the loss of eye(s), hearing or irreparable damage to hands as they rise in defence. Permanent physical disfigurement is unavoidable and serious disability is frequent.

Legal applications of acid are mostly industrial but it can be readily acquired from articles of frequent use since the retailing of acid is unregulated. Reported cases rose from 80 in 1996 to 485 in 2002. The Acid Survivors Foundation’s research shows that women are attacked for a number of reasons such as – refusal of marriage, refusal to develop a relationship, rejection of sexual advances, dowry-related issues and intra-family disputes over land.

Majida, a 17-year-old girl from Bangladesh was seven months pregnant, her eyeballs literally falling out of her sockets, her face disfigured beyond recognition, when John Morrison, founder-executive director, Acid Survivors Foundation Bangladesh, Chairperson, Acid Survivors’ International Trust, UK, first saw her in 1998. “She had taken the full force of an acid attack on her face. Majeda was disfigured in a manner that defies description – and understanding. I know that it is people like 17-year-old Majeda who have changed my life. I know that tragically, there are more victims like Majeda. I believe we must all help Majeda and make sure there are no more victims like her in the future,” says Morrison.

The Acid Survivors Foundation, Bangladesh, was formed in 1999. With initial funding provided by the Canadian International Development Agency and UNICEF, as well as the pioneering voluntary work of several dedicated Bangladeshis, and the support of our Trustees, ASF functions regularly towards helping and rehabilitating acid-attack victims.

Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) claims to be the only organisation whose sole purpose is to work towards the end of acid violence across the world. Recognising the need for local knowledge and expertise in order to combat acid violence effectively, ASTI founded and supported the development of six partner organizations in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, Nepal, Uganda and India. It has also worked with UN agencies, NGOs and strategic partners from across the world to increase awareness of acid violence and develop effective responses at the national and international level. ASTI is a registered charity in England and Wales, based in London. It has a committed team of expert volunteers who are working to ensure that effective resources are available to support survivors on their journey and that the human rights and dignity of survivors are upheld.

Indian women are no less immune to acid-attacks. But sadly, no NGO appears to have formed a nucleus to work towards the reconstruction and rehabilitation of these victims.

On October 17, 2000, Satyasai Nayak and some of his friends attacked Poonam by throwing acid at her. The boy, who is from the western Orissa town of Bhawanipatna, was “punishing” her for unrequited love. A grievously injured Poonam has been going from one hospital to another since then. Poonam had lost her ears, nose and eyelids in the attack and needed plastic surgery. In 40 major operations, the Singhal family has so far spent about 25 lakh and the government’s contribution has been a meagre Rs 75,000. On September 2004, the three accused were sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and Rs 2,500 fine each.

In September 2003, Mumbai-based Hansa Patel had acid thrown on her face by an electrician who wanted to marry her. No one knows where or how she is today. In May 2004, Sanjeev, a 37-year-old married man threw acid on the face of Jacqueline Asha, a 27-year-old beautician, also married. The incident took place in Cholanayakanahalli in Hebbal police limits in Bangalore. The victim had spurned the sexual advances of the man. On April 10, 2003, the headmaster of Mugunur Primary school near Ilkal, in Bagalkot district threw acid on his colleague Thara. He was jealous of her popularity. In 2003, in Hoysalalu village in Chikamagalur district, a young shopkeeper threw acid on Malini, who he was in ‘love’ with. Noorjahan, a mother of three, was soaked in acid for refusing the advances of a chemical factory owner’s son.

TP Jindal, senior psychiatrist at the Indira Gandhi ESI Hospital, Delhi, says, “Acid attacks in Delhi are increasing because it is the easiest way of taking revenge and the damages are always lethal,” adding “in most cases, the man suffers from an inferiority complex. The aggressors suffer from psychopathic tendencies because of which they are not able to have a rational mind and control unstable thoughts. The men always want everything to be easily available to them.” Jindal has been with Jain Hospital for more than 25 years and is committed to provide the highest level of comprehensive care to all those who seek treatment.

The acid victim is forced to turn a social recluse because of the damage to his/her person. The victim is unable to gain productive employment for the same reason – employers will shy away from appointing a disfigured person. The expenses needed are so huge that even upper middle class families will bend under the impact.

If Pakistan and Bangladesh can at least try to bring back the lost faces to the young women then touch them up with a hint of a smile on them, is it too much to expect our own to follow their example? Within the ambience of the consequences of an acid attack which are financial, medical, psychological, social and emotional, can a compensation of a mere Rs. 3 lakh make any dent in the impact of the attack on the victim?