In 2003, when she was 17, Sonali Mukherjee had a bright future in front of her. She was captain of the National Cadet Corps (NCC), president of the student union and an honors student, wishing to pursue a degree in sociology. All she wanted to do was provide a better life for her family, whom she had seen struggling for the most basic things.
Everything changed on an April night, when one of her suitors, whose advances she had turned down, alongside two other friends decided to punish her for rejecting him. They broke into her home as she slept and poured Tezaab – a chemical used to clean rusted tools – over her face, leaving 70 percent burns on her skin, melting her eyelids, nose, mouth and ears, and leaving her partially deaf and almost blind. In an interview, she recalled: “I woke up feeling strange. Within a few seconds it felt like my whole body was on fire. I kept screaming in pain till I passed out.”
Life after the attack
For Sonali, the attack “changed the entire meaning of my life. It felt like the light had gone out all of a sudden, and darkness had surrounded me on all sides. I had no hope, I didn’t know what to do.” It also profoundly affected her entire family. Her mother went into depression, while her grandfather suffered a heart attack which caused his death.
The young Indian woman has had to undergo reconstructive surgery 22 times, costing hundreds of thousands of rupees. She still has nine operations to go, for which she needs at least 1 to 1.5 million rupees (£11,600 to £17,400), in order to recover her eyesight and look even remotely human. In order to pay for her treatment, her family had to sell their ancestral land and her mother’s jewelry, as they received no help from the government.
Her three attackers were sentenced to nine years in jail, but quickly managed to be released on bail. Her appeal for justice led to no results, as the three men continue to freely roam the streets of her hometown. In an interview, she reacted to their release: “My father spent every penny, hoping I would get justice. But in the end we lost everything, while the criminals are out there.”
Incidence of acid attacks
There are many women in the world, just like Sonali, whose life is changed forever by an acid attack. The exact number of annual acid attacks is unknown, as many women and their families often choose not to report their attackers, knowing that, as in Sonali’s case, justice is not delivered.
The attackers are quickly released from jail, while the family’s victim is left to live in shame. Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) reports that the six NGO organizations that it supports in Bangladesh, Uganda, India, Cambodia, Pakistan and Nepal together treat a total of around 1,000 acid attack patients per year. At the moment, ASTI is the only organization whose sole mission is to end acid violence around the world.
Sonali’s new struggle
By 2012, Sonali felt fed up with life, so she petitioned the government to approve her euthanasia, which is considered illegal in India. In her letter, she expressed her growing feeling of hopelessness, of living without a future and the burden imposed by the lack of justice. As her request was rejected, she decided to fight back, in order to prevent other girls suffering a similar attack.
The first step in her rekindled fight was to participate in and win India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire, which brought her one million rupees. She confessed to CNN that she entered the contest for the money prize, which she desperately needed for her treatment, but also to raise awareness about the suffering of acid attack victims. She also revealed that the newly found media attention gave her “a platform to air my grievances. After that, support poured in from all quarters. Now I know I am not alone, so I have dropped that idea and am determined to fight like a soldier till the end. If I am alive today, it is all because of media support.”
Sonali has been using the fame brought by winning the contest to advocate women’s rights in India and to put an end to acid attacks. In an interview, she said: “People like these three men, who can spoil someone’s life like this in a fraction of a second should be brought to justice. These incidents [of acid attacks] will stop only when people involved are given hard punishments according to the crime they have committed.”
Steps to end acid attacks
In April 2013, India finally passed a law punishing perpetrators of acid attacks with 10 years in prison and a fine. Sonali believes that the prison sentence for acid attackers should be non-bailable and that the government must increase the compensation amount for victims.
The young woman also believes that it is imperative that legal measures be coupled with grassroots measures, such as the establishment of vigilance committees, voluntary and non-official bodies aiming to assist local authorities in the detection of crimes and criminals. She also advocates government regulation of the sale of cheap and easily available locally-produced household cleaners containing highly concentrated acids.
Sonali worriedly stressed: “You can buy highly concentrated chemicals like those used on me in most markets for less than 50 rupees a bottle. This is enough to ruin a woman’s life. They may not have killed me, but I might as well be dead.”
While, as Sonali points out, national governments have the responsibility and the ability to stop acid attacks, which represent a grave violation of women’s rights, the international community must also take action. The latter must put pressure on governments of the countries where acid attacks still occur to pass stronger legislation on punishments for attackers and on the availability of dangerous acids. Moreover, it must help the victims, by providing financial, medical and any additional support required as well as by helping organizations whose mission is to fulfill these goals, such as ASTI. At the same time, citizens from around the world must put pressure on their own governments to take action against acid attacks, in order to ensure that women’s rights are protected everywhere and that cases such as Sonali’s will not be allowed to occur again.
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Very brave woman. Wish you the best from the bottom of my heart. Keep up the fighting spirit.