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Interview & Text by: Radhika Garg

14 years old Muskan Khatun’s life changed on the morning of September 6, 2019 when two boys followed her and threw acid on her.

Acid attack is a heinous act of brutality that causes severe injuries to the face and body. While the physical pain and disfigurement is intolerable, it also harms the survivor’s psychological and social needs, affecting and scarring their quality of life forever. This article focuses on the social issues faced by acid attack survivors while receiving opinions of the general public from different backgrounds.

When our skin comes in direct contact with a naked flame, a hot surface or splashes of boiling water it causes burn injuries. We believe that pain is intolerable and wounding. Imagine the pain if acid was thrown on you?
According to Psychology Today (2014), an estimated 1500 people (worldwide) per year are victims of acid attacks; 80% of whom are female and 40% are under the age of 18.

On the morning of September 6, 2019 at 5.45 am at the break of dawn, Muskan Khatun’s life changed. The 14-year-old sustained acid burns on her face and body on her way to school. Muskan was being followed by two boys who stopped her on her way, asking her to drink water from a jug. “I declined their offer; I was scared and started walking. However, the boys threw acid on my face when I looked back,” recalls Muskan. Muskan was screaming in pain and agony when the locals gathered and rushed her to Narayani Hospital.

“We received a phone call narrating the incidence, and instantly ran out to the hospital, bare feet,” says Muskan’s father, Rasul Ansari. At the hospital, Muskan’s skin was peeling and had sustained more than 15% skin damage. She was brought to Kirtipur hospital a few days later where she was under the fulltime care of doctors and nurses. Surgery was performed 10 days later by Dr. Surendra Basnet that lasted for six hours.

Muskan’s family shifted to Kathmandu for her treatment, worried, angry, confused and stressed. “Will my daughter be able to take her place in society again? Cosmetic surgery is expensive and we have other children to support as well,” wonders Shahanaj, Muskan’s mother.

Meanwhile, Muskan has undergone three operations. Appreciating social activist Ujjwal Thapa, Ansari says, “He has been an advocate and helped us throughout. We make our final decisions after consulting with him.”

In Muskan’s case, she had a family to take care of her completely; otherwise in such cases either of the parents is only available. Ujjwal came to Muskan’s aid after her first operation. “He visited Muskan a couple of times every day for at least two months,” says Ansari. She was even visited by models, actors, singers and Bollywood stars supporting her, asking her to fight to live another day.

Ujjwal has been on mission to actively help with providing his services for acid attack survivors over the past five years. “My first encounter was with Sangeeta Magar at Bir hospital,” he recalls. He adds, “The severity of punishment needs to be strictly adhered to by the government. Our laws are weak and allow a maximum sentence of only up to five years.”

Ujjwal Thapa champions the cause of acid attack victims and is on mission to change the law.

Law enforcement

Thapa is a devoted social activist involved to ease the situation, fight the law and provide for acid attack survivors. He is father of three daughters and believes it is essential to thwart such attempts. “This immoral act leads to life-long consequences and the laws against the perpetrators need to be severe,” he emphasises.

“Acid attack is a violent crime that is devious in nature. The cases become publicised which leads to revulsion along with pain for the survivors. Our legal system is extremely weak and slow, the survivors have to wait for months for the trial to begin. The sluggish state of the court provides freedom to the attackers,” he sums up.

He proposes that the court take drastic measures and implement rigorous laws against acid attack. He forms his beliefs around the five mains issues stated below:

• The restriction and licensing of acid or any cohesive material. The purchaser must present a government-issued identity card to purchase such substances.
• A fast track court that speeds up the hearing and delivers unyielding punishments.
• A reciprocal punishment: a minimum of life imprisonment for the attackers.
• The survivors must receive free medical and rehabilitate facilities from the government for life.
• To educate the public and society.

Justice to the survivors by punishing perpetrators in accordance with the severity of the burns is unfair. He says, “The court provides for the punishment based upon the percent of bodily harm caused to the survivor. How can one determine a judgment based on the severity of the attack?”

Employment opportunity

Ujjwal takes every opportunity to build awareness and find role models in society who can influence and shape the behavior of others. The affluent and educated can speak in public for survivors and create opportunities for work and career, he believes. “If the educated and corporate sectors employ the survivors, the outreach of the message will reach both classes and make lives simpler,” he states. The man has made it his mission to fight for survivors, “My dream is to speak in front of the parliament regarding acid attack,” he shares.

Neighbouring countries dealing with the offence

Acid attack is an act of violence that has increasingly become prevalent in South Asia. This has led the courts in India to regulate the buying and selling of acids. They are made to register with a photo identity for purchase or sale of acid. The punishment sentence has increased from 10 years to life term.

Bangladesh has even introduced a death sentence in 2002 for perpetrators, leading to a decrease in acid attack cases.

In Nepal, acid attack brings devastation to the victims and their families; such cases yet have to be brought to justice by higher authorities.

Earlier cases

Sangita Magar along with Seema Basnet, acid attack survivors, suffered from an attack in 2015 at the mere age of 16. She avoided public places, refrained from interactions and public spaces for three years that followed. She slowly gathered the courage to face the world. People stare at her whenever she is out and this has consequently led her to cover her scars. The thought of her perpetrator being released from prison haunts her, worrying about any safe space for individuals like her.

Sangita believes in a stricter punishment for the culprits. She has gradually accepted her reality and moved on in life. It requires immense courage and support from families for survivors like Sangita Magar, Jenny Khadka, Seema Basnet, Muskan Khatun and many more. Survivors want to see their attackers in prison for the rest of their lives.

Dr Surendra Basnet
Cosmetic Surgeon
“According to the Nepal Health Ministry, there are about 56,000 burn-violence cases yearly with the death tallying up to 2,100. Scalding fire burns are higher in children while adults suffer from higher flame burns. Chemical burns cases are as high as 3-5%. When an individual suffers from burns, specifically acid burns, immediate care, and first aid must be provided. The first line of action is to continuously pour running tap water over the infected area. Tap water helps reduce the scarring over the skin. It is important to prevent hypothermia to help the victim. The selling of chemicals like hydrochloric acid, sulphuric acid, and silver nitrate should be licensed. Chemical burns cause deeper burns in comparison to electrical burns. It leads to tissues damage, third-degree burns and requires excessive surgical help and excision”.
Shikhar Pandit
“In the past, the Nepali government did not provide financial support for treatment or any compensation for acid attack survivors. Sangeeta Magar and Seema Basnet’s case challenged Nepal’s law on acid attack and burn violence. As the case gained public interest the court increased the penalty for acid attack. In Nepal, the new law under the Criminal Code came to light in August 2074 (2018). The penalty included serving a sentence up to five to eight years depending on the gravity of the offense. It is inclusive of a fine up to Rs. 100,000 to Rs. 300,000 which will be charged to the perpetrator and would be awarded to the survivor”.
Rishav Koirala
Psychiatrist (currently pursuing PhD in Trauma)
“Survivors suffer from psychological trauma leading to PTSD, depression, and anxiety. There is a change in behaviour causing avoidance, negative thoughts, depression and a feeling of helplessness. The first way to help acid attack survivors is by educating society to integrate survivors. They need to experience normality. Additionally, the media must avoid jumping to conclusions which causes harm to the survivors”.
Pratiksha Karki
Burn Violence Survivors Nepal
“BVS-Nepal is collaborating with 12 hospitals in three developing regions of Nepal. BVS-Nepal supports survivors of burns caused by accidents or violence such as attempted homicide, normally using kerosene or acid and cases of self-immolation often stemming from domestic violence. To date, since 2008, BVS-Nepal has supported more than 8,600 burn patients. Further, The number of acid cases that have been recorded in BVS-Nepal from 2010 to date is 30 in total. Around 87% of the acid attack survivors recorded are female and 11 are under the age of 18”.