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Archana took a look into the mirror and screamed. The image in the mirror bore no resemblance to the girl who eight months ago had spurned the advances of a man—an act with terrible consequences.

Only 18, Archana (who uses only one name) was preparing for her Class XII practical exams. The man had been stalking her for more than four years—sometimes passing obscene comments, at other times threatening her. When she finally complained to her parents in November 2008, they went and complained to his.

At around 4.30pm on 15 November 2008, the man entered Archana’s house and before she could react, he swung his arm out. He was carrying a two-litre Pepsi bottle, cut in the middle and filled with a pale yellow coloured liquid. “It was over in the blink of an eye—I didn’t even know what had happened. When he ran away, my face, my arms started burning," recalls Archana, who is now 25. Her family didn’t know what to do and no one recommended wasting time in the hospitals in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, where they lived.

By 10pm, they reached Safdarjung hospital in New Delhi. But it was already too late. Half her face and skull had melted away. Even today, Archana remains blind in one eye, partially deaf, and scarred.

It’s not just that one moment. It’s what follows—the struggle to live every day in the knowledge that their lives will never be the same again that is most difficult for survivors to accept. Some become victims of acid attacks over domestic or land disputes. Others over dowry demands or revenge. But in an overwhelming majority of cases reported for over a decade now, it’s because a young girl or woman simply turned down sexual advances, or rejected a marriage proposal, from a man. Archana’s family spent 15-20 lakh in 32 surgeries to reconstruct her face. “And still it is not even close to what it was," she says.

Acid violence is almost always “tied to gender inequality and discrimination", notes a 2011 report, Combating acid violence in Bangladesh, India, and Cambodia by Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School. “Perpetrators often intend to destroy what society considers to be one of the most valuable traits of a woman—her beauty," states the report. An earlier 2009 Law Commission report notes that acid attacks have “a specific gender dimension in India". Even the Verma Committee appointed in early 2013 recognized the “gender specificity and discriminatory nature" of the offence.

The intention is not to kill so much as to “cause long-lasting physical damage and emotional trauma", says the Cornell report. “Such attackers commonly aim at the face, neck and upper body."

By the home ministry’s admission, 234 cases of acid violence were registered between 2010 and 2013 in India. But activists say the numbers are much higher and show an upward graph with each passing year. While 80 people became victims of acid violence in 2010, the figure stood at 130 for 2014 (until November), says Rahul Varma, national director and chief executive officer of Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI).

The long and expensive medical journey

Most survivors, like 34-year-old Haseena Hussain from Bangalore, believe they will regain their original faces after five or six surgeries. “Till five surgeries, I was hopeful. I thought I would be left with a few scars at most. But in 2008, my doctor said I would never look the same as I did before the incident. Now I know life will never be normal again," says Haseena, who was attacked in 1999.

Haseena was walking towards her office when her former boss, who had proposed marriage to her only to be turned down, poured two litres of sulphuric acid on her head. “I cannot describe the pain in words. I couldn’t stop screaming," she says.

“Acid will burn anything that comes in its way—skin, muscle, subcutaneous tissue, even bone. The treatment requires multiple sittings—20 or 30 on an average," says Dr P.K. Talwar of Delhi’s Cosmetic Laser Surgery Center.

The extent of damage depends on the nature of the acid, how concentrated it is and the duration of contact. Survivors need a series of surgeries and simultaneous physical therapy so that the scarred tissue remains elastic. If not washed off immediately, acid continues to burn the skin, and enters the internal organs.

The first step is simply dousing the skin with water to wash off the acid. The wound must then be cleaned with multiple dressings to minimize infection. Later, skin grafts are put on the wounds to heal. If victims survive infections and organ failure that could set in at this stage, “the real reconstruction work starts. Multiple sittings are needed to provide tissue, bulk, skin", says Dr. Talwar.

Medical treatment is a long, and expensive, haul. Haseena underwent 35 surgeries and says she has so far spent 20 lakh. Her father sold off his house, her mother her jewellery and Haseena exhausted all savings from her job.

Although the Supreme Court had in June 2013 fixed 3 lakh as compensation for survivors, with 1 lakh to be paid within 15 days of the attack to “facilitate immediate medical attention", activists claim that state governments have failed to disburse the amounts. The process of claiming the money is tedious. “Victims have had to file petitions in respective high courts," says Varma of ASFI.

“Most of these women aren’t from rich families. They are not asking for charity. They want jobs. 3 lakh is not at all enough. Corrective surgeries take a lot of money," says Sushma Varma, trustee of Bengaluru-based Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW).

Government hospitals are ill-equipped to deal with acid violence, and private hospitals are often unaffordable for patients. “The government should make the treatment cashless. Hell falls on the survivor and the family when this happens. To add to the misery, there is a long list of bills to pay. In a recent incident in Rohtak, a woman was shifted to the PGIMS hospital in Rohtak after an attack, then to Hisar, then Mumbai—just because the facilities required weren’t available," says Jagmati Sangwan, president for Haryana at All India Democratic Women’s Association.

Agrees CSAAAW’s Varma: “The situation is pathetic in rural areas. Medical costs are so expensive and government hospitals don’t have all the facilities. Private hospitals don’t even admit patients without an initial deposit of 1 lakh." Not just that, after recovery, most survivors require regular counselling and sessions with psychiatrists and psychologists—an aspect of recovery largely ignored.

“These women become demoralized. People in the same locality where they were living before the attack, start staring at them, children get scared. They need counselling and this part is totally ignored by the government. They are only concerned about giving compensation," says Dibyaloke Rai Chaudhuri, coordinator of ASFI.

What next for me?

Finding a job isn’t easy. A majority of victims are young girls in the middle of their education and don’t have the qualifications for a job. Others find they cannot return to their jobs, either because their employers don’t want them back or because they are caught up in a spiral of unending medical treatment.

Like Haseena, most survivors ask: “What next for me?" She says, her life is divided into two parts—one before the crime and one after. “Whatever I had learnt became meaningless after the attack. I lost my sight and even mobility was difficult," she says. Haseena now works as a stenographer in a government office in Bengaluru. However, she stresses she got the job because she passed an exam and not because of the government’s help.

Sheroes Hangout, a quaint cafe with bright coloured graffiti on the walls, unusual for Agra, serves fast food from 10am to 10pm. Founded by NGO Stop Acid Attacks, the cafe is run by five acid attack survivors. Rupa (who uses only one name) from Uttar Pradesh is 22. In 2008, her stepmother poured acid on her while she was sleeping. “For a long time, I couldn’t forget the smell of my skin burning," she says.

Because her family kept insisting that they would have been better off had she died, Rupa says she was determined to become independent. The cafe also sells clothes designed by Rupa, who is determined to become a fashion designer.

Eighteen-year-old Ritu Saini from Rohtak was a state-level volleyball player. In 2012, her 39-year-old cousin attacked her with acid. “I want to meet him once just to ask him why he did this to me," she says of the man who is serving a life sentence.

Neetu (who uses only one name), who is now 23 years old, was just 3 when her father threw acid on her, her mother and an infant sister because “he didn’t want daughters". “I never had a job before this," she says. Her mother Gita also works at the cafe, but was undergoing yet another surgery in New Delhi the day this correspondent visited.

Stop Acid Attacks plans to open similar cafes in Delhi and Kanpur, with small attached libraries.

Legal tangle

If the medical haul is daunting, battling the legal system is no less intimidating for survivors struggling to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Until the 2013 Criminal Law Amendment Act, passed in the months after national public outrage over the gang-rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012, acid attacks were clubbed together with a list of offences intended to cause grievous harm.

The current law identifies two classes of offences committed with the use of acid depending on the severity of harm caused. Section 326A covers cases where permanent damage, disability or deformity is caused by the attack and lays down imprisonment ranging between 10 years to life. And section 326B punishes attempts to throw acid or throwing acid with the intention of causing permanent or partial damage. The punishment includes imprisonment ranging between five and seven years.

A day after she was attacked with acid in 2009 in Haryana, a 31-year-old survivor who asked not be named, says the police visited her. “I never heard from them again," she adds. When the sentence was pronounced, the 23-year-old, who was hired to attack her, was declared a juvenile in police records.

The judicial proceedings left her shocked and disheartened. At every hearing, the accused would come accompanied by his clan. “Elders would kiss his head and bless him as if he was some sort of freedom fighter," she says. He was granted bail 12 hours after his arrest. “He was politically very well connected. They even threatened my lawyer." Finally, she says she was able to get her case transferred to Delhi and get a commitment from the Haryana government that the state will assist her with her medical expenses.

“Police officers themselves are often unaware of the law," says Khadija Faruqui, a consultant with the women’s helpline, 181. “They have not been given even primary training. On multiple occasions, we have to inform the police about sections under which the FIR has to be registered."

Laxmi (who uses only one name), the acid attack survivor whose public interest litigation led to the Supreme Court order, says that the only reason she got compensation was “probably because it was my case which got the order". She adds: “Many other survivors are yet to get anything."

Faruqui says that although some survivors have received compensation from government departments and charitable trusts, it is due to individual advocacy rather than an institutional reaction. “Delhi is better off than the rest of the country," she says.

“One has to go on living. So, I have to work and earn a livelihood, armed with my eye drops," says the 31-year-old. With no eyelids and sight limited to one eye, she will continue with medication for the rest of her life.

Archana now works in a private firm which pays her 5,000 a month. “People don’t mingle with me much, they probably find me scary," she says. Still, she says, this job is much better than staying at home, and crying and remembering a past she can never bring back.

This is the third part in the series.

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