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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Still Smiling - Indian women fight back from acid attacks


Ritu Saini, Neetu Mahor, Dolly Kumari, Rupa and Gita Mahor pose for a photograph at the Sheroes' Hangout cafe on September 16, 2015 in Agra, India. A GROUP of acid attack survivors are baring their scarred faces to empower other abused women. Sheroes' Hangout is run by Laxmi, Rupa, Chanchal, Ritu and Sonam, who do everything from cooking and cleaning to accounting and designing dresses. The café in Agra, India, was opened by an NGO aiming to encourage society to accept acid survivors - who are often shunned by their community. Rupa, now 22, was attacked when she was just 15-years-old whilst sleeping at home. The acid melted her skin, burned her eyebrows and disfigured her upper lip, leaving her in a coma for six weeks.

A young girl stands in the doorway of the restaurant.“Welcome to our little cafe,” she says above the rumble of the rush hour traffic. Her name is Dolly and she is 15 years old.
“I'm the youngest here and the naughtiest,” she says, and then laughs - it is impossible not to join in. A few customers arrive for a quick cup of masala chai. Agra is submerged in a dense winter fog, so the cafe's colourful murals offer some morning cheer. Dolly takes an order and heads off to the kitchen, flashing another broad grin.

Three years ago someone tried to destroy that winning smile. He didn't succeed but there is no ignoring the thick scar tissue which snakes across most of Dolly's face.
The trouble began when a man from the same neighbourhood - twice Dolly's age - wouldn't leave her alone. He started stalking the 12-year-old schoolgirl, making lewd remarks and suggesting they should sleep together.

Then one day he suddenly turned up at her house while she was playing with other children. I ran away towards my room but he threw acid on my face. It started to burn and I screamed and shouted. Dolly's family immediately doused the raw flesh of her face with water and she was rushed to hospital. Thanks to the quick thinking of a doctor, her eyes were washed out and her sight was saved.

Even so, Dolly is now permanently scarred and she still has trouble breathing because of the damage to her nostrils. She recalls the moment she asked to look in a mirror after returning home from the hospital.
“My mother refused and told me I was still beautiful. She said I could look in the mirror later. Then my little sister accidentally put a mirror in front of me and I saw it. I cried and howled and screamed.”
Dolly didn't want to eat or leave the house. “I even thought it would have been better if I had died,” she says.
Her gut instinct was that she should cover her face with a veil. For a year, she would ignore the gentle encouragement from her mother to try venturing outside the house.

Dolly's life changed when her family heard about Sheroes. Here she met another survivor called Sonia, who changed her view of the attack.
“She told me that I wasn't the one who needed to keep my face covered since I hadn't done anything wrong. The person who has committed this crime should be the one to cover his face.”
Her assailant is now in prison. Dolly recently sent him a letter to tell him that he had failed to break her spirit.  “You burned my face, but not my will to live. You cannot throw acid on that,” she wrote.
She said she had forgiven him but she admitted that it had been a difficult process. “Sometimes, I have wondered how it would be to empty a full bottle of acid on you,” she told him.
In the cafe Dolly dances and sings, but she is wise beyond her years. She is troubled by the fact that some people think the victims of acid attacks bring their misfortune on themselves, by rejecting the assailant's advances. That is why she believes it is so important that survivors like her engage with the world instead of hiding themselves away.
She works hard at the cafe, serving backpackers who pass through town on their way to see the nearby Taj Mahal. She jokes with them in broken English and tries to teach them snippets of Hindi.  Sheroes helped her get her confidence back. I like the fact that my parents feel pride in my work and that I'm standing on my own two feet.”
Dolly hopes one day to return to her studies and perhaps become a doctor.
So what would she say to another woman who was attacked today? “I would tell her that whatever has happened has happened. Look forward. Don't look back.”
“The fear of reprisals inhibits many women from coming forward to report their ordeal,” explains Ashish Shukla, a coordinator at Stop Acid Attacks, a Delhi-based non-profit that has rehabilitated and empowered over 100 acid attack victims since its inception in 2013.
“In India, acid attacks are even worse than rape as the victims, who are usually female, are subjected to humiliation on a daily basis. Most of the women are shunned and ostracized,” explains Shukla.
The activist adds that public and government apathy results in a double victimization of the survivors. “They are forced to repeatedly appear in court, recount their trauma, and [visit] doctors even as they grapple with their personal tragedy of physical disfigurement, loss of employment and social discrimination,” elaborates the activist.

As per the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, a person convicted of carrying out an acid attack in India can be sentenced to anything from 10 years to life imprisonment.
The Supreme Court ruled on Jul. 16, 2013, that all states regulate the sale of easily available substances like hydrochloric, sulfuric, or nitric acids – common choices among perpetrators – adding that buyers must provide a photo identity card to any retailer, who in turn should record each customer’s name and address.
However, most retailers interviewed, demonstrated complete ignorance of the law. “This is the first time I’m hearing about this ruling,” Suresh Gupta, owner of Gupta Stores, a small, family-owned outfit in Noida.
Campaigners say that this horrific form of gender-based violence will not end until the government makes it much harder for offenders to procure their weapon of choice; currently, one-litre bottles of acid can be purchased over the counter without a prescription for as little as 33 cents.
The Supreme Court has condemned the government for failing to formulate a strong enough policy to curb acid sales. In early April, the Court directed private hospitals to treat acid attack survivors free of cost, and additionally ruled that states must take action against medical facilities that fail to comply with this directive. Bangladesh has the highest rate of acid assaults, approximately 400 per month.
Why do Indian men do such vicious things ? Because they can. Until now , they got away with it and also rape,without reprisal or punishment. India is a strongly patriarchal society... men rule, their word is law and they hold all the positions of power. Women have little or no value to these guys. They are disposable commodities, only good for sex , child bearing and being household drudges. Many are virtual slaves. Enlightenment comes slow to those who do not wish to change.

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