The prolonged trauma of acid attack survivors

Sangita Thapa Magar, Jenny Khadka and Muskaan Khatun at a Parliament hearing last week to lobby for stricter punishment for perpetrators of acid attacks. Photo: Himal Khabarpatrika

Teenage survivors of acid attacks, nearly all of them young women, say regulating the over-the-counter sale of acid and life imprisonment for perpetrators are the only ways to stop the kind of attacks that disfigured them for life.

Some of these women attended a hearing convened by Parliament’s Women and Social Committee in Singha Durbar last week, just after news came in of another horrific attack on a young woman in Kathmandu by an employer who reportedly sought revenge for having his advances spurned.

Among those at the hearing was Muskaan Khatun, 14, who survived an acid attack last year in the street while on her way to school, scarring her right ear, cheek and neck. Two suspects were detained by the police.

Images of Muskaan Khatun went viral on social media, and coincided with the release of the  Bollywood film Chhapaak on acid attacks on women in India. Khatun went on to use her high media profile to raise awareness about acid attacks.

Khatun came for the hearing wearing a black scarf last week with her parents, which she took off once inside the room, revealing the scarred right side of her face. She burst into tears while recalling the attack and the pain and suffering afterwards during the many operations at a hospital in Kirtipur that treats burn victims.

“Doctors recommend that I apply medicine on my wounds five times a day, but I can only afford to do it once a day because it is so expensive,” Khatun said as the masked committee members listened. “I have another nine years of treatment, how am I going to complete it? My parents have no work.”

Also at the hearing were other survivors like Jenny Khadka and Sangita Thapa Magar who shared their pain from acid attacks.

Khadka used to be beaten often by her husband, and one day she had enough and went to a police station in her torn clothes to report an assault. The police sent her away and told her to sort out her domestic problems herself.

Her husband then poured acid on her, burning her hand, neck and body. Now, a year later, she has to be careful while dressing, her skin is often dry and painful.

“Throughout my life, I was never sick. Now I need life-long medication, and I am deeply in debt,” says Khadka. “People take pity on me, and that makes me feel even more helpless.”

Khadka is livid that while her life has been ruined, she has lost her job, and her mother became ill with stress her husband is not suffering much. The hospital where she was treated refused to discharge her because she did not have the money to clear her bills, and she was only allowed to leave after her friends raised money through Facebook.

“Those who attacked us are clothed and fed in jail and are looking forward to the day that they will be released, while we suffer endless pain,” Khadka says. “I am against the death penalty because that would end it all in a second for them. They should have to bear prolonged suffering like us.”

Sangita Thapa Magar was 16 in 2015 when she was attacked by a young Dalit man who had been trying to have a relationship with her. Magar’s parents had told him to stop pursuing their daughter, and in revenge he bought Rs125 worth of acid in a shop in New Road and splashed it across her face while she was taking tuition.

She has since had 17 surgical procedures on her face, her hopes of one day making it to Nepal’s national karate team now dashed. Magar is now determined to be an activist against acid attacks, and to help other victims like her cope with the physical and mental scars. Magar is now afraid because her attacker has been released from jail.

"It may be a feeling of revenge, but we would like our attackers to also suffer like us, maybe that will reduce the number of attacks,” she told the Parliament committee. “If stricter laws had been enacted as soon as I was attacked, maybe Jenny and Muskaan would not have to suffer.”

Khatun, Khadka and Magar were attacked by different men, but they have been joined by fate and vow to continue their work to help other like them, including Pabitra Karki the latest victim whom they all went to see in hospital last month.

Karki, 22, was attacked in Kathmandu by her by a man hired by her employer who had taken fancy to her, and has severe burns in her face and hands. Police have arrested both men, while Karki is getting help from charities and good Samaritans like Ujjwal Bikram Thapa who also helped Khatun.

According to a police study, nearly all acid attacks are perpetrated by men who act in revenge because the young women rejected their advances. But this is the first time lawmakers have called acid attack survivors for a hearing to understand their struggles and discuss the existing laws that allow the crime to happen.

The committee has directed the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers. the Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens, and the National Commission for Women to provide education, health treatment, employment, and social rehabilitation to the victims of acid attacks.

It also says that the punishment in the existing law is not enough of a deterrence and has instructed the Ministry of Home Affairs to start the process of amending the law to make way for stricter sentencing. The Office of the Attorney General under Agni Kharel on 2 August formed a committee headed by Deputy Attorney General Bishwaraj Koirala to look into the laws and submit a report within a month.

Many cases of women suffering acid attacks have surfaced over the past two decades, every time there is yet another horrific crime there are calls for stricter laws and control in acid sales. This time, the survivors want their voices heard and action taken to deter future attacks.

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