The story of an acid attack survivor
Pragya Singh had been married for only 12 days when she was attacked. While heading to Delhi from Varanasi to attend campus placement, a jilted man threw acid at her. He was a distant relative whom she had refused to marry.
Since then she has undergone nine reconstructive surgeries. The attack has left burns on her back and chest, spoilt her vision in one eye and damaged her ear and left arm.
Pragya’s story is not an isolated one.
‘These attacks are quite common and have increased a lot in the past five years,’ she says. In 2012 there were 106 reported attacks, according to Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI). The number increased to 122 in 2013, 349 in 2014 and more than 500 in 2015. According to Pragya, the number of cases rose to at least 800 in 2017. ‘These numbers are underestimated, as most victims are not willing to report these attacks, or simply not aware of the help they can get.’ Although men too can be victims of these attacks, Pragya estimates that 80 per cent of the victims are women.
Pragya’s story does not stop there. After the attack she fought for two years to get her attacker imprisoned for four and a half years. Allegedly, he bribed the public prosecutor and the judge handling Pragya’s case at the Allahabad High Court. He only served four and a half years and was then released due to good conduct.
In 2013, India’s Criminal Law Amendment Act introduced an amendment to the Indian Penal Code making acid attacks a specific offence with a punishment of no fewer than ten years in prison, which can extend to life imprisonment and an added fine.
However, often it is very difficult to get justice. ‘Imprisonment for ten years rarely happens,’ says Pragya, ‘only in two cases have I seen the attackers get 14 years, and in most cases if they behave well, they may get parole.’
‘A couple of the women I have helped did obtain justice, but the legal battles often take up three to four years. It is very discouraging for the victims and even more so as the attackers often only receive five years or seven of imprisonment.’
The problem, Pragya believes, also stems from the availability of acid across India.
‘Acid is sold freely in most parts of the country,’ she explains, ‘there are no regulations to control its purchase from hardware stores.’ One litre of acid is sold at approximately 20 rupees (£0.22), and is much cheaper than mainstream household products. In rural India, it remains a substantial issue as there is no awareness of the danger of misusing acid. ‘Acid is available in most households and used to clean floors and bathrooms,’ she says.
Pragya has founded a NGO, the Atijeevan Foundation, to help women and men who have been through the same experience. She understands the pain that every acid victim goes through in India, where receiving proper medical treatment remains a huge challenge. Having survived an acid attack herself, she believes there is a need for guidance. ‘I felt there was a need for intervention between patients and doctors as most acid attack victims do not receive the necessary guidance,’ she says. ‘The impact and treatment of burns is not well communicated to the patients and the rest of the society’.
Through her NGO, Pragya also tries to find solutions to the issues burn victims may face, such as using physiotherapy to help with the pain, and she collects money to help them with surgeries. ‘Victims often suffer from serious disabilities after the attacks,’ she says. ‘Some may be blind and it is very difficult for them to earn a living and integrate back into society’.