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Disfigured victim's plea to die exposes India's acid violence

Published Jul 27, 2012 11:32am


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Sonali Mukherjee, 27, sits in a room temporarily offered by a Sikh temple during an interview in New Delhi July 22, 2012. Mukherjee is appealing to the Indian government for medical support for skin reconstructive surgery as well as tougher penalties on her three assailants, who were released on bail after only three years in prison. Picture taken July 22, 2012. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood (INDIA - Tags: SOCIETY HEALTH CRIME LAW)
Sonali Mukherjee, 27, sits in a room temporarily offered by a Sikh temple during an interview in New Delhi July 22, 2012. Picture taken July 22, 2012 by REUTERS

NEW DELHI: They came in the dead of night, broke into her home as she slept and poured a cocktail of acids over her face -- burning her skin, melting her eyelids, nose, mouth and ears, and leaving her partially deaf and almost blind. Her crime? She had spurned their sexual advances.

Nine years on, Sonali Mukherjee, 27, is appealing to the Indian government for medical support for skin reconstructive surgery as well as tougher penalties on her three assailants, who were released on bail after only three years in prison.

Either that, she says, or authorities should give her the right to kill herself. Euthanasia is illegal in India.

“For the last nine years, I am suffering ... living without hope, without future. If I don't have justice or my health, my only way out is to die,” she says, sitting on a bed in a sparsely furnished room above a Sikh temple in south Delhi.

“I don't want to live half a life, with half a face.”

Sonali's desperate plea highlights the heinous crime of throwing acid on women in India, the lack of support for victims, and lax laws which have allowed attackers to get away with what activists say is the equivalent of murder.

Acid violence - where acid is intentionally thrown to maim, disfigure or blind - occurs in many countries across the world, and is most common in Cambodia, as well as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India where deep-rooted patriarchy persists.

Around 1,500 acid attacks are reported globally each year, with 80 percent of them on women, says London-based charity, Acid Survivors Trust International, adding this is a gross under-estimate as most victims are scared to speak out.

There is no official statistics for India, but a study conducted by Cornell University in January 2011 said there were 153 attacks reported in the media from 1999 to 2010.

Many of these attacks, said the study, are acts of revenge because a woman spurns sexual advances or rejects a marriage proposal.

“These men feel so insulted that a woman could turn them down and have an attitude of 'If I can't have you, no one can',” says Sushma Kapoor, deputy director for UN Women in South Asia.


With a bright future ahead of her, Sonali was a 17-year-old sociology student in the city of Dhanbad in India's central state of Jharkhand when the attack happened back in April 2003.

The three men were her neighbours and harass ed her as she left for college every morning. When she threatened to call the police, they took revenge, leaving her with 70 percent burns to her face, neck and arms.

An Indian court handed down nine-year jail terms to each of her attackers. But within three years, the men were out on bail.

Her appeal against their release has yielded little results, says Sonali, and she continues to worry about her safety.

Unlike countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, where acid violence has in recent years been listed as a specific offence, India still categorises it as grievous hurt, dolling out penalties which are lenient and jail-terms which are bailable.

“The actual attack is just the start of a life of suffering.

Most are disfigured and blind. They face years of physical and mental pain and need rehabilitation,” says Sushma Varma, founder of the Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW), a Bangalore-based voluntary group.

“In most cases there is no help, no support, no money.”

With a rising number of reports of such attacks, the cabinet this month approved a proposal to make acid attacks a separate offence, making it punishable by 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to 10 lakh rupees ($180,000). This will now have to be approved by parliament.

But victims and activists say the government must also look at regulating the sale of locally produced household cleaners, which contain highly concentrated acids, that are easily and cheaply available in local markets across the country.

Acids are increasingly being used as weapons, like guns, they say, but there are no licensing laws for those who sell and purchase these deadly chemicals which also include neat hydrochloric and sulphuric acids.

“You can buy highly concentrated chemicals like those used on me in most markets for less than 50 rupees a bottle,” says Sonali. “This is enough to ruin a woman's life. They may not have killed me, but I might as well be dead.”


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Comments (18) Closed

Ali Jul 27, 2012 02:34pm
Very sad indeed. What can we do to help out and eradicate the root cause for these attacks?
AliMoeez Jul 27, 2012 04:58pm
Is there anyone who would make a documentary on American money???
Sangha Jul 29, 2012 06:48am
How exactly does a woman 'gain' from another woman being in that much pain?
Karachi Wala Jul 28, 2012 01:07pm
What a nonesense.
A.A.Qureshi Jul 28, 2012 01:35pm
There is need for strict laws to counter this horrible crime which is used to revenge, it is not acceptable in a civilized society. Make laws as such to discourage such feelings of disfiguring others.
saleem Jul 28, 2012 01:37pm
Why they have not received the punishment of pouring same amount acid to their faces as well. Eye for Eye, Face for Face.
Arun Jul 29, 2012 06:33am
This is one crime where i would like to see the "eye for an eye" punishment. That may not be a realistic hope, but India needs to strengthen its laws. Of course, Pakistan has better laws, but I see Hina Khar's cousin, Bilal Khar is not in jail.
Diksha Jul 29, 2012 07:57pm
I feel so hurt by reading this...what a male chauvinist society.....
Shafiq Malik Jul 29, 2012 08:06am
horrible.this is something worse than even death.thxs God Pak has gone tough against it nd declared death sentence for this crime india should follow Pak at least in this case.....the culprits should b sentenced for lifetime imprisonment.
priceless Jul 27, 2012 10:01pm
"an eye for an eye" let the offenders face the same fate which their victims suffered. there will be no more crime.
Silajit Jul 27, 2012 03:10pm
This is horrible and is at least one case where India needs to upgrade its laws. Such an offense should carry the death penalty (only because there is nothing in the law that will let you mete out harsher punishment.)
Rahul Jul 27, 2012 10:06pm
Really Really sad to hear of this. I think for such acts there should be no leniency.
Lahori1 Jul 28, 2012 07:14am
The question is why disfigure and why acid? Who gains from disfiguring a woman's face? In almost all cases another woman.
Noorani Jul 29, 2012 06:42am
Yes very true, eye for an eye. How come the judges of the court allow these criminals to go free. if any one can let me know, how to help Ms. Sonali
ovais Jul 28, 2012 03:16pm
it is possible to revenge if she want
Mustafa Razavi Jul 28, 2012 05:51pm
Allah says he has endowed all humans with a sense of fairness. Apparently, that fairness is buried at some depth. It takes a certain environment to bring that fairness to the fore, sadly that environment has been largely lacking throughout the social evolution of mankind. Nationalism, patriotism and many other isms have been taking precedence over that human fairness. Till we unlock that divine gift of fairness, quick, certain and severe punishment is needed to keep cruelty such as this in check.
karachi_mustang Jul 28, 2012 06:11pm
At least the accused spent 3 years in jail. In many case, the accused simply run away and they don't see even a day in jail. What is really unfair in this case is that the attackers are now free and going back to live their normal lives. And yet this woman's suffering will continue perpetually. The attackers should've been made an example of to discourage others from doing the same. Since the victim is still suffering, I would have voted for the same soup of acid to be served on the attackers.
melanie jean juneau Jul 29, 2012 12:10am
horrendous- surely there is a women's organiztion that can take up this cause? How about a first world group that could tackle this injustice against women and bring it world attention?