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Fight against acid attacks needs a more aggressive approach: NGO

A non-profit body dedicating to the rehabilitation of acid attack victims says it is time for tougher penalties, making acid more difficult to procure and increasing awareness and sensitization in the city

The Acid Survivors Foundation India, (ASFI), Western India Chapter announced commencement of its operation in Mumbai and launched a campaign, ‘war against the terror caused due to acid attack’ with a press conference held at the Indian Merchants' Chamber, (IMC-Churchgate) committee room, on a wet, Monday afternoon.

(from l) Rahul Varma, Shubha Raul, Dr H P Kanoria, V Juneja and Kalpana Ghodawat at the press meet. Pics/Shadab Khan
(from l) Rahul Varma, Shubha Raul, Dr H P Kanoria, V Juneja and Kalpana Ghodawat at the press meet. Pics/Shadab Khan

The fight against acid attacks needs an aggressive three-pronged approach. First is prevention, which means one has to make it more difficult to procure acid. Second is punitive action, which is stringent punishment for the attacker and finally of course, there is rehabilitation and a real effort to reintegrate the victim into mainstream society.

Rahul Varma CEO, ASFI Vinod Juneja, president ASFI
Rahul Varma CEO, ASFI and Vinod Juneja, president ASFI

The ASFI has been providing support to survivors of acid attacks through a network of chapters in India. They have put stress on seeing that victims can be reintegrated into the mainstream because as they said, “An acid attack not only disfigures the face, but also shatters lives.”

Intoxication and attacks
The conference began with an introduction to the nature of violence, “there is one case where the death penalty has been awarded in the case of an acid attack. It is only when severe punishment is handed out that we will see some kind of change in this pattern of violence.”

(from l) Dr Shubha Raul, Dr H P Kanoria and acid attack survivor Kalpana Ghodawat
(from l) Dr Shubha Raul, Dr H P Kanoria and acid attack survivor Kalpana Ghodawat

What was established upfront was that there are many more women who are victims of acid attacks, in fact, women and children form the majority, which is nearly 80 per cent of acid attack victims. So, there is a significant gender gap in the case of acid attacks, which does not mean that men too should be attacked with acid but statistics simply show how women are bearing the brunt of this. There are also very weak controls when it comes to procuring the acid.

Kalpana  Ghodawat, acid attack victim
Kalpana  Ghodawat, acid attack victim

Says Dr H P Kanoria, chairperson ASFI, “We have identified at least 25 victims in and around Mumbai. One of the main reasons for these attacks is the high consumption of alcohol. Attacks occur very often by perpetrators who are in an inebriated state when they attack.

They are fuelled by rage and a false sense of bravado.” Kanoria added that statistics show that India now accounts for approximately 30 per cent of the world liquor consumption and there is also increase in consumption of spurious liquor. He said one way to combat this is to increase import duty on liquor.

Figures speak loud
Kanoria’s talk was followed by an extensive slide presentation where statistics buttressed the comments of the speakers. A pie chart showed that from 2010-2013 in India, 85 per cent of women bore the brunt for acid attacks, while it was 15 per cent for men. An important finding was that refusal or rejection of offers of marriage by men, was a very big factor in acid attacks.

Spurned male lovers and suitors form a majority of acid attack perpetrators. The chart shows that rejection led to nearly 41 per cent of acid attacks on women. Said Rahul Varma, National Director and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), ASFI, “Though acid attacks result in disfigurement not death (though death can happen in cases where treatment is delayed) the victim dies a 100 deaths.

I have seen families of acid survivors’ removing every mirror at their home. Acid survivors’ have not seen mirrors for 10 years or more.” Varma also stated that the Government has earmarked compensation of Rs 3 lakh per victim but an acid attack survivor needs at least 40-50 surgeries depending on the severity of the injury, and costs range in the formidable Rs 50 lakh range.

Overall, speakers stated that there has to be a stress on respect for women, punitive action and prevention (make the availability of acid tougher than it is now). Speakers also touched upon greater awareness about skin donation and skin banks.

Attempt to murder
Vinod Juneja, president ASFI added that, “Acid is one of the most easily available and accessible weapons to hurt somebody, today. It is one of the easiest ways to take revenge for some altercation, disagreement, slight or wrong, perceived or otherwise.” Juneja added that people must know that, “Acid attacks are not burn cases. The injury goes deep into the tissue and needs special treatment.”

Former Mumbai mayor Dr Shubha Raul, also one of the speakers on the panel concentrated on efforts to make acid more difficult to procure. “Currently, there is no record about the acid buyers. It must be made mandatory. Sellers must ask buyers all identification details and the reason why they wish to buy acid.

At least, in that way, there is a record about who has bought the acid.” Raul also stated that she would want Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), ‘attempt to murder’ imposed on the perpetrators of these attacks.

Multiple front battle
It was evident that the battle has to be fought on multiple fronts and different strategies carved out. Prevention is ideal, but in case the crime has occurred, there has to be harsher punishment for attackers, better compensation for victims, counselling for them and an effort to give them a new lease of life. Survivors have to live without fear and shame of society, and most importantly, shake off the fear of facing the mirror, themselves.

The autorickshaw seat was burning
Kalpana Ghodawat is an acid attack survivor. She sat through the press meet at the IMC, impassive for the most part as speakers outlined their vision of the future of combating the problem.

Then, there was a flurry of flashlights, cameras and television mikes as she got ready to speak about her experience. Here, it is important to state that just the fact that Kalpana was ready to face press cameras and allow pictures of her face, was a huge step forward for her and an indication about how she has put back the pieces of her life and grown in confidence in her journey towards self-healing and recovery.

Kalpana, who is a Sangli Jilla (Maharashtra) resident said, “It was the year 2003. I was married for 14 years by then. My husband was an alcoholic and I stayed with him because I kept thinking he would improve. I had two children. I used to think my face and my personality was God’s gift to me. I started a beauty parlour (salon) near my home. My husband got instantly jealous.

He used to ask me, why do need to go outside the house? Why do you need to improve somebody’s face? One day, he suddenly came home and poured a can of acid over my head. I could not stand. I realized I could not see. The acid dripped down to my body and my chest. There was nobody who came forward to help me. I stepped out of my home.

One autorickshaw driver helped me. He took me to a hospital. The acid was so strong that the seats of the autorickshaw started burning. All the while, I was barely conscious, I was murmuring who will look after my children?” Kalpana said she lay in darkness in hospital for months. After being in hospital for close to nine months, Kalpana came home.

“I used to close the door. I did not want anybody to see me. I used to cry the whole day. Then, my friend told me to go to Bombay and contact Dr Ashok Gupta. I did so, approaching him through an NGO and had a number of surgeries. Today, this doctor has given me the confidence for a new shot at life.”

Today, Kalpana’s husband is dead (of natural causes) but she lives on, given a new face thanks to numerous plastic surgeries. She now faces life and others, without blinking. She says, “Nobody, man or woman should go through what I did. Acid should not be so easily available.”

Anatomy of an acid attack
Acid throwing is usually an act of revenge, motivated by jealousy or hatred, because of a personal relationship problem such as a broken love affair, or marriage, or unfaithfulness or rejection. The perpetrator blames the victim for the problem, and wants to inflict as much physical and mental suffering as possible. The acid is usually thrown at the victim’s face, so nobody will ever love the victim again. Other reasons for acid attacks, in some cases have included robbery or disputes between neighbours.

What can be done?
>> Acid violence should be backed with harsher punishment on the perpetrator as well as controlling the sale of acid. 
>> The new law must include guidelines for handling/supporting victims economically, socially and psychologically as well as giving compensation.
>> Maharashtra Govt. should consider putting all acid attack cases in fast track courts.

End Acid Violence
>> In case of an acid attack, shout or call for help.
>> Wash the affected area with a copious amount of water continually for at least half an hour.
>> Urgently transfer the person to a hospital for treatment.
>> Acid Survivors Foundation India helpline: 9007612727

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