No respite for India’s acid victims despite promised compensation
MUMBAI // The teenager’s voice trembled as she recalled the day her brother-in-law and his friends pinned her down and doused her face with acid.
Amid the horror of the attack, which followed a family dispute, Reshma Qureshi, 18, should have received swift state aid after India’s top court ruled that victims were entitled to 100,000 rupees (Dh6,000) within 15 days.
But, five months later, she has received nothing.
“One of my eyes is ruined, yet no help is coming,” Reshma said in her family’s Mumbai tenement, as tears ran down her disfigured face, to which her mother applied cream to soothe the burning.
Acid attacks have long plagued India, often targeting women in public places as a form of revenge linked to dowry or land disputes or a man’s advances spurned.
Those who survive the attacks face lifelong scars and social stigma. Reshma, once an outgoing commerce student, no longer socialises with friends but lies quietly on the family bed, saying and eating little.
Despite steps taken last year to help wipe out the scourge and improve financial aid for survivors, activists say little has changed.
“Still there’s no awareness on the issue,” said Alok Dixit of the New Delhi-based Stop Acid Attacks campaign group, accusing authorities of “buying time”.
The supreme court in July last year gave states three months to enforce restrictions on the sale of acid, but campaigners say it remains easy to purchase.
The court also said victims should get 300,000 rupees in compensation, a third of it within 15 days of the assault.
Mr Dixit said he knew of nobody who had received this initial sum so quickly, while only two in 100 cases had managed to win the full amount.
“People don’t know how to apply for compensation. The authorities don’t know.”
Even if claims were successful, the figure is “not at all enough” for the costly plastic surgeries required, Mr Dixit said.
Reshma, the youngest child of a taxi driver, was attacked in her family’s home state of Uttar Pradesh, and the fact that she lives in Mumbai complicates her claim.
Her relatives have clubbed together and taken out loans for her treatment, but doctors have said she may need up to 10 more operations.
“After that things will be better, but still nothing will be alright,” she said.
Reshma’s older sister Gulshan, whose estranged husband carried out the attack, witnessed the assault and suffered burns on her arms.
She said she wishes she had been the main target.
The family believe Reshma was singled out because of her beauty and popularity.
“Reshma is very emotional and she wants to study,” Gulshan said.
While Gulshan’s husband was arrested and jailed, a juvenile in the gang has been freed on bail and two other accomplices remain at large, the family said.
“The police don’t say anything, they don’t search anything,” said Reshma.
Last year, acid attacks were made a specific criminal offence in India, punishable with at least 10 years behind bars. But court cases can drag on for years.
Particularly in the northern states, “police are not very cooperative and we have heard of cases where they try to get families to change their statement”, said Bhagirath Iyer, a member of the volunteer network Make Love Not Scars, which helps victims.
Frustrated with the lack of government aid, activists have turned to online crowdfunding to help raise funds for acid attack survivors.
Make Love Not Scars has set up a campaign for Reshma, who returned to hospital for more treatment. The immediate target is 134,600 rupees , although her overall costs are expected to be much higher.
Mr Iyer said donations usually came from wealthier Indians living abroad, but they were also targeting Indian celebrities on Twitter to spread their message.
“Crowdsourcing is possible but you have to market it really hard,” he said, adding that upper middle-class victims often won more attention in the Indian media than those from poorer social backgrounds.
Reshma, who describes her face today as “so scary”, is desperate to finish her treatment and hopeful that she will bring her attackers to justice.
“I want to tell them that they should not be able to do to other girls what they have done to me.”
The campaign site for Reshma can be found here: www.indiegogo.com/projects/support-acid-attack-survivor-reshma
* Agence France-Presse