India's acid victims still suffer despite new rules

MUMBAI - The Indian teenager's voice trembles as she recalls the day she lost her face when her brother-in-law and his friends pinned her down and doused her with acid.

Amid the horror of the attack, which followed a family dispute, Reshma Qureshi should have received swift state aid after India's top court ruled that victims were entitled to 100,000 rupees (S$2076.45) within 15 days.

But, five months later, she is yet to receive a penny.

"One of my eyes is ruined, yet no help is coming," the 18-year-old told AFP in her family's cramped Mumbai tenement, as tears ran down her disfigured face, to which her mother applied cream to soothe the burning.

Acid attacks have long plagued India, often targeting women in public places as a form of revenge linked to dowry or land disputes or a man's advances spurned.

Those who survive the attacks face lifelong scars and social stigma. Reshma, once a pretty and outgoing commerce student, no longer socialises with friends but lies quietly on the family bed, saying and eating little.

Despite steps taken last year to help wipe out the scourge and improve financial aid for survivors, activists say little has changed.

"Still there's no awareness on the issue," said Alok Dixit of the New Delhi-based Stop Acid Attacks campaign group, accusing authorities of "buying time".

The Supreme Court in July last year gave Indian states three months to enforce restrictions on the sale of acid, but campaigners say it remains easy to purchase.

The court also said victims should get 300,000 rupees in compensation, a third of it within 15 days of the assault.

Dixit said he knew of nobody who had received this initial sum so quickly, while only two in 100 cases had managed to win the full amount.

"People don't know how to apply for compensation. The authorities don't know," he said.

Even if claims were successful, the figure is "not at all enough" for the costly and multiple plastic surgeries required, Dixit added.

Nothing will be alright 

Reshma, the adored youngest child of a taxi driver, was attacked in her family's northern home state of Uttar Pradesh, and the fact that she lives in Mumbai complicates her claim.

Her relatives have clubbed together and taken out loans for her treatment, but doctors have said she may need up to 10 more operations.

"After that things will be better, but still nothing will be alright," she said.

Relatives were in tears when AFP visited the family home, reached by a steep ladder down a maze of alleyways.

Reshma's elder sister Gulshan, whose estranged husband carried out the attack, witnessed the assault and suffered burns on her arms, but wishes she had been the main target.

The family believe Reshma was singled out because of her beauty and popularity.

"Reshma is very emotional and she wants to study," Gulshan said.

While Gulshan's husband was arrested and jailed, a juvenile in the gang has been freed on bail and two other accomplices remain at large, according to the family.

"The police don't say anything, they don't search anything," said Reshma.

Last year, acid attacks were made a specific criminal offence in India punishable with at least a decade behind bars. But court cases can drag on for years.

Particularly in northern states, "police are not very cooperative and we have heard of cases where they try to get families to change their statement," said Bhagirath Iyer, a member of the volunteer network "Make Love Not Scars", which helps victims.

Crowdfunding help

Frustrated with the lack of government aid, activists have meanwhile turned to online crowdfunding to help raise funds for acid attack survivors.

"Make Love Not Scars" has set up a campaign on the website Indiegogo for Reshma, who returned to hospital for more treatment on Friday. The immediate target is $2,200, although her overall costs are expected to be much higher.

Iyer said donations usually came from wealthier Indians living abroad, but they were "bombarding" Indian celebrities on Twitter to spread their message.

"Crowdsourcing is possible but you have to market it really hard," he said, adding that upper middle-class victims often won more attention in the Indian media than those from poorer social backgrounds.

Reshma, who describes her face today as "so scary", is desperate to finish her treatment and hopeful that she will bring her attackers to justice.

"I want to tell them that they should not be able to do to other girls what they have done to me."