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Bihar-based Chanchal Paswan is among the growing number of women scarred by acid attacks across India. As she struggles to reclaim her life, she advises authorities to act on harassment complaints before they turn brutal.
Six months before he poured acid over her face as she slept, Anil Rai had threatened Chanchal Paswan. "I will destroy your face, " he reportedly told her on the streets of Chhitnawan, an hour's drive away from central Patna, where they live.
Chanchal, an 18-year-old student, had been accosted several times by Rai and his three friends over the last two years. They had even vandalised her house. But it was when Chanchal rejected Rai's marriage proposal that he issued this threat, following it up with the horrific incident of October 20, 2012.
It was a hot night, so Chanchal and her sister Sonam were sleeping on the roof of their house. Chanchal woke up, startled, to see two men pinning her arms and legs down, while two others poured acid on her. The acid splashed on to her sister Sonam, who sustained burn injuries on her arm. Neighbours saw the men flee as Chanchal's parents rushed her to the hospital where she was declared to have 28 per cent burns.
The gruesome assault on Chanchal joins a growing list of acid attacks on women being reported across the country. On February 12, Vinodhini, a 23-year-old Chennai resident, succumbed to burns she suffered following an acid attack three months earlier;on April 2, four sisters, all teachers, from Shamli, UP, endured a similar assault. According to Acid Trust Survivors International, an international agency, an estimated 1, 500 acid attacks are reported globally each year, of which eighty per cent victims are women attacked by jilted lovers, suitors, stalkers, or all three. India has no official figures on acid attacks as a crime for now.
Alok Dixit of Stop Acid Attacks says, "By scanning English and Hindi newspapers, we can say there are close to 100 acid attacks in India every year. The real numbers on the ground would certainly be much higher. " Attacks of this nature were so far covered under Section 326 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which deals with 'voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means'. But seeing the need for separate legislation, in April, the government has passed the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, which defines acid attacks as a separate IPC offence and proposes punishment of 10 years to life for perpetrators, along with a fine up to Rs 10 lakh.
Today, Chanchal's attackers are behind bars in Beur Jail, Patna. Rai, the main conspirator, surrendered after 12 days, claiming to be a juvenile. The Paswans allege he is older.
The Paswan sisters received a collective compensation of Rs 2. 42 lakh from the state government under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities ) Act, 1989. But Chanchal requires a minimum of Rs 15 lakh for her extensive surgeries.
So far, doctors have been able to partially reconstruct her eyelids and area under her eyes. If she tries hard, she can blink but is still unable to close her eyes completely. Her lower lip hangs from her mouth and the two slits left of her nose are runny and need constant care. The area around her shoulders and left knee are shrivelled with black patches where there once was skin. "I am sure they used a whole bottle of acid, " she says of her massive injuries.
Her next scheduled surgery is for her neck, which is currently fused to her melted chin. Chanchal has had four surgeries so far. (UK resident Katie Piper, survivor of a similar attack, was only able to fully reconstruct her face after 40 operations. )
After three months at the Patna Medical College Hospital and a surgery in New Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital, Chanchal is back in her one-room, partiallyopen, brick home allotted to her family as part of a government scheme. A worn curtain acts as a 'door' to the house, where most of the walls are covered with posters of assorted Hindu gods, BR Ambedkar and Bollywood stars Katrina Kaif and Shahid Kapoor. The kitchen has a thatched roof, and a small open area with buckets of water serves as the bathroom.
Chanchal wanted to be a software engineer when she was older. School and computer classes were the best part of her day before the attack. She was in class XI at the time. Her mother Sunaina Devi recalls how Chanchal's teachers were very happy with her. "She was the only girl in this area to reach class X. And then she joined computer classes too, " says Sunaina Devi.
The diligent student has had to suspend her studies, though she hopes to enroll for open schooling once she is fit. While at home, she regrets being unable to read, though she has enjoyed some Tenali Raman short stories recently. "It's difficult because I can't bend my neck to look down, " says Chanchal, whose eyes have to be cleaned with medicated solution at regular intervals to keep infections at bay. Her skin requires frequent coconut oil massages to prevent it from drying. She can watch TV, but doesn't enjoy it much and remains fairly cut-off from the world outside Chhitnawan.
She has never met other survivors like her. "I know there are many like me. I want to know how it happened to them and what they are doing, " she says of acid-attack survivors elsewhere.
Unaware of the new legislation aimed at curtailing acid attacks, Chanchal believes that complaints of harassment need to be taken more seriously. She claims she had filed a police case against Rai and his friends when they first started harassing her. "The police should act on complaints of smaller offences. That is where it all starts and builds up, " she says, describing the daily catcalling, waylaying and other incidents as "torturous".
Having reflected on the incident, she finds the gender imbalance infuriating. She bitterly remarks, "Ladka jo kare, woh theek. Ladki kuch bhi kare, woh badnaam (Whatever a man does is fine. Whatever a woman does brings her dishonour. ). "
The family can even now recount the day to the last detail. Sunaina Devi recalls being awakened by her daughter's screams, pouring buckets of cold water over her to stop the burns from spreading and carrying her to the ambulance. The family claims the attackers returned that night and finding Chanchal's grandmother alone, threatened to burn the house down. They believe this "kaand" or serious mishap goes beyond gender violence.
The village, dominated by Yadavs and Dalits, has a small but powerful land-owning upper caste to which the attackers belonged. Sunaina Devi says that ever since the arrests, they are no longer taunted by them. "Earlier there would be fights over drawing water. Now they keep their eyes low when we pass by, " she says.
Chanchal's father Shailesh Paswan, a daily-wage labourer, says the frequent trips to the hospital, first in Patna and now Delhi, leave him no time to work and earn a living. Activists have helped the family put up an online request for donations on a crowdfunding website and at the time of writing this story, Chanchal's page showed a total of $1, 770 collected from donors across the world. The target is $2, 000 by May 15.
Though encouraged by this, he is bitter about the lack of institutional support for Chanchal's case. "An official from the National Commission for Women was visiting our area the other day and some journalists who met us later had told her about Chanchal. She still did not bother visiting, " he says.
Chanchal is unfazed by the absence of sympathy, as she says no one from her street has spoken to her since October. She avoids going out. "I was standing at the door and the two children who live opposite saw me and ran inside, screaming, " she recalls. But even as she relates this incident, her niece, barely a year old, nonchalantly climbs into her lap and dozes off. She strokes her niece's head, and says that while she's scared to step out, she hasn't considered moving house. "What more can happen after this?" she asks staring vaguely into the distance.
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