Uniting to combat acid attacks

| | in Oped

It’s time India Inc as well the Government comes forward to help acid attack survivors become independent and feel normal. Most importantly, laws need to be tightened and the society must ensure that such crimes are not repeated

It has been a difficult, traumatic journey for Yasmin (26) and Asma (24), sisters from Shamli village in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar, who faced acid attacks in 2004. But this has not taken away their will to fight and emerge victorious with enormous grace.

This writer had met the two teenagers back in 2004 at a dharmshala of Delhi’s Safdarjung hospital where they had been undergoing multiple surgeries.

Completely shattered and devastated with their face totally disfigured, they could barely talk. Twelve years down the line, the two, with strong willpower, backed with help coming from here and there, are trying hard to walk on the road to empowerment.

After completing her graduation, Yasmin is now a nurse in a Delhi hospital, the Hakeem Abdul Hameed Centenary Hospital, while Asma works  with telecommunication giant Airtel’s corporate social responsibility programme — a part of the Modi Government’s ‘Digital India’ initiative.

On International Women’s Day, this writer felt apt to salute the grit and courage of the two girls and also of many others like them, who, despite being victims of one of the most atrocious form of violence against women, had the zeal to fight back and to lead a normal life.

They have shown that, with a little help from society, they can gain strength to pick their life again, though it’s not easy. Scars — both physical and psychological — continue to haunt them at every moment.

According to a report, India accounts for one-third of reported acid violence cases in the world. In March, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs reported that about 309 cases of acid attacks were registered in 2014.

The numbers are higher than what has been reported in recent years. This because of better reporting of cases and also because acid attacks have only recently been classified as a separate crime.

The menace has no boundary. As per Acid Survivors Trust International, of the 1,500 cases that were registered in 2014, about 500 cases were from India. In neighbouring Pakistan too, cases of acid attacks have gone three times higher in the past three years.

According to Acid Survivors Foundation, Pakistan, 501 cases of acid attacks with 653 victims, have been reported during the last five years. In 2015, as many as 40 cases of acid attacks were reported, leaving more than 60 people maimed.

In late 2011, the Pakistan Senate passed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act which was hailed as a landmark legislation to ensure greater social protection for women. However, experts point out that legal lacunae in the existing acid crime legislation are the main reasons for rising incidents.

The apathy back home seems to be limitless. Despite a 2013 order by the Supreme Court to stop the open sale of acid and carry out tighter restrictions on distributors, dangerous materials — toilet-cleaning acid, for instance — are easily available.

In fact, it was Laxmi, another acid attack victim, who filed a public interest litigation in 2006, and the Supreme Court issued directive “to treat acid as poison and regulate its sale (by keeping detailed logs of the buyers) under the stringent Poisons Act, 1919.”

Laxmi is now an activist who campaigns for the rights of the acid attack survivors. In 2014, she was awarded the International Women of Courage award, which she received from the US first lady, Ms Michelle Obama.

Needless to say, there are many Yasmins and Laxmis who need to be seen as female icons in their own way, trying hard to get over psychological challenges of what had happened to them. Encouraged by Yasmin’s determination to survive with respect, the Jamia Hamdard University stepped in to waive off her college fees.

Doing its bit for the victims, Acid Survivor Foundation India in collaboration with the Haryana-based W Pratiksha Hospital and Interplast UK, has taken an initiative to provide free reconstructive surgeries to acid attack victims, besides tending to burn and cleft lip victims. The campaign ends on March 12. Similarly, renowned British plastic surgeon Mr Mohammad Jawad is silently doing his best to visit his native country, Pakistan, and help the recovery of acid-attack victims.

Another non-governmental organisation, Stop Acid Attacks, has started a hangout, popularly known as Sheroes — a readers’ cafe, an activism workshop, a community radio hub, and an exhibit space-employing survivors of acid attack.

It is high time, India Inc as well the Government come forward to give acid attack survivors an opportunity to work, help them become independent and feel normal. But what is most important is to tighten the laws, make society, particularly our boys, sensitive, to ensure that such crimes are not repeated.

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