'I'm a walking corpse' – India to help its acid attack victims
I'm a walking corpse' – India to help its acid attack victims
New law in India comes into force this week which will recognise survivors as being physically disabled. They will now be entitled to compensation and help to get jobs
Anu Mukherjee had just started working as a hotel bar dancer when she had acid thrown at her by another dancer. Photograph: Lasse Bredsten
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The Indian government will this week bring into force legislation designed to help tackle the pervasive crime of acid throwing by giving victims official recognition.
From Friday, India’s thousands of victims of acid attacks will be defined as disabled – giving them access to limited compensation and jobs. India’s minister of women’s development, Maneka Gandhi, announced that the revised Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 now defines acid attack survivors as physically disabled.
Its implementation means they can gain access to employment in the government and education sectors through disability quotas and reserved places.
The new act has been hailed as progressive, but some human rights lawyers and activists have reservations about the law’s implementation.
“There is a skills gap as most acid attack victims are uneducated and have low computer literacy. The process of applying is not even clear,” said Megha Mishra, north India manager at the Acid Survivors Foundation India (Asfi). “The right intervention would be to stop the activity from happening in the first place.”
Women make up 80% of acid victims, according to Asfi, which says the number of assaults are on the rise. Reasons for attacks include revenge for a refused marriage proposal, family or land disputes, domestic violence or suspicion of infidelity.
Indian government statistics show there were 249 attacks recorded in 2015, a rise of 11% on the previous year. Under-reporting means the figures disguise the true scale of the problem, according to the Human Rights Law Network – an India-based non-profit legal aid organisation – which estimates there at least 1,000 cases per year.
Almost a quarter of the 2015 attacks took place in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This week the state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, ordered acid traders to send in detailed stock reports, and outlined strict penalities for non-compliance. The government tightened controls on sales of some acids in 2013, but cleaning agents are still easily available. Victims suffer disfigurement, scarring, blindness and breathing difficulties.
Anu Mukherjee grew up in Delhi. Orphaned at 14, she moved in with a physically abusive aunt who forced her to leave school and get a job. By 16 she was working as a hotel bar dancer, and a fellow dancer, Meena Khan, became jealous of her. As she left her home one Sunday, Khan and another assailant threw acid in her face.
Mukherjee, now aged 35, is disfigured and blind. Having paid for 21 operations, she is in debt and struggles to afford further treatment. “I used to be pretty, now I’m ugly,” she said. “I’m a living corpse.”
The act places women like Mukherjee alongside victims of cerebral palsy, dwarfism, muscular dystrophy and leprosy. But it is not enough, say doctors. “The government has taken a shortcut by putting acid attack survivors in the category of disability,” said Dr Colin Gonsalves, founder of the Human Rights Law Network and a senior advocate at India’s supreme court. “How can we take an acid attack victim at par with disability?
“The problems of acid attack victims are unique. They need multiple surgeries, often 10 and above. Their period for rehabilitation could last up to 5-10 years.
“Victims need employment, education, money during that period, a safe place to stay and witness protection, because assailants often stalk them afterwards demanding they stop prosecution. Not simply that you get your medicines for free.”
Mukherjee did get the stipulated £3,700 from the government towards her treatment, but costs shot up to £43,000. She sold the small amount of gold she had but still owes £7,400.
“I received a letter from the government saying as long as I am alive, there is no need for further compensation. This is what our government is like … Until laws change and stricter punishments are put in place, this crime will keep happening. I have no leverage, I have received no justice.”