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Acid Attacks on Women in India Prompt Protests

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Acid Attacks on Women in India Prompt Protests

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Acid Attacks on Women in India Prompt Protests

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. And just a warning, the next story has some graphic details that you may not want young children to hear.

Eight years ago, in Bangalore, India, Haseena Hussain had everything going for her. And then she turned down a marriage proposal from her former boss. To punish her, he poured two liters of hydrochloric acid over her body. In India, this kind of acid attack against women is on the rise. Haseena is one of the most vocal members of a group of activists fighting this trend.

Scott Carney has this story from Bangalore, India.

(Soundbite of protesters)

SCOTT CARNEY: I'm standing on the steps of the city hall in Bangalore with members of the Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women, or CSAAAW.

Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women Members: (Foreign language spoken).

Two days ago, a 22-year-old mother of four children was doused with acid and forced to drink a deadly concoction of a corrosive and alcohol by her abusive husband in the nearby city of Mysore. It's the 61st attack that the campaign has recorded since 1999, and about a hundred women, including Haseena Hussain and other acid survivors, have turned out to demand government action.

Sanjana(ph), a founding member of CSAAAW, who like many South Indians has only one name, tells me this about her demands.

SANJANA (CSAAAW): The demands that we put forward to the government at this stage is, one, to control the easy availability of acid. The second demand that we've put in place was currently the accused are booked under attempt to murder. The problem with that is that when that case reaches the courts, it's very easy to prove he did not intend to kill her. So the case falls and the accused gets away with next to nothing.

CARNEY: CSAAAW has had some success convincing the courts and police to take acid attacks more seriously. The campaign also points to a recent ruling that increased the sentence of Haseena's attacker from five years to 14 after an appeal. But even that rings hollow to Haseena, who has suffered burns over most of her body and lost her eyesight and nose.

This is Haseena in her own words.

Ms. HASEENA HUSSAIN (CSAAAW): I have to suffer life long. And he's gotten only 14 years of life imprisonment. After that, he'll be free. But what about me? What about my parents? For each and everything I do, I depend on my mother and my family. We lost our house. My father sold the house. He took loans for my surgeries.

CARNEY: In that ruling, the judge also demanded that the government set up a fund of about $250,000 to cover the cost of reconstructive surgery that many of these women need. Survivors of the attack say that the fund is only enough to care for about two women, far short of the needs of the more than 60 survivors.

Take Haseena's case. For three days she was shuttled between different hospitals. All of them demanded exorbitant sums of money from her family as a condition for giving treatment. Meanwhile, the acid continued to eat away at her body.

Ms. HUSSAIN: The acid holding to my body like anything and burns increased to 65 percent. And my head, skull, hand, everything was burned. For six months I was in the ICU and they did plastic surgeries - still today, and it is 2007, I've undergone 25 surgeries.

CARNEY: Parviti Tomatto(ph), the Government Women's Commission in Karnataka, realizes that the state has a responsibility towards the burned women and says that there are plans to give them each housing and cash for surgery. But so far, she says that the government's only allocated 10,000 rupees or $300 per survivor.

Ms. PARVITI TOMATTO (Government Women's Commission): We will take action within the month so that all the acid victims from 2001 (unintelligible) will get the facilities.

CARNEY: And 10,000 is enough to cover the medical expenses?

Ms. TOMATTO: That is a meager amount, peanut.

CARNEY: Even if the women received excellent medical care, the best these women can hope for is survival. If not treated immediately, women like Haseena lose their eyesight and spiral into depression. Many commit suicide. Sanjana, one of the campaign's founders, has this to say.

SANJANA: Acid attacks are permanent. The damage that is inflicted on a woman is something that she will have to deal with throughout her life. The intention is to destroy a woman's body, destroy a woman's image. Kind of make her like a living dead.

Ms. HUSSAIN: Children are very scared to see my face. People won't talk with me. They won't even to touch my hand.

CARNEY: Acid violence seems to be concentrated in South Asia, with most incidents occurring in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Part of the reason is that acid is cheap and widely available. Many Indians use concentrated acid to sterilize their kitchens and bathrooms, just like Americans use Clorox or Drain-O.

But the problem affects more than just the women represented by this campaign. Acid is everywhere. And a number of politicians, including the wife of a former prime minister of India, have had acid thrown at them. It's commonplace in mob violence too. One of the reasons that the culture has accepted acid as a weapon is that popular television serials and films reinforce the idea and repeatedly portray acid attacks onscreen.

Ms. SANJANA: There was actually a 17-year-old boy who attacked a 16-year-old girl in Bangalore. First thing that he said was that he got this idea from a film that he had seen. We have very blatant visuals which show that getting a bottle of acid, opening it up, splashing it on her face, several commercial futures films portray the scene as explicitly as that.

CARNEY: Perhaps the most dangerous thing about acid attacks is the fear that they create. With just a few rupees, anyone can buy a weapon that can ruin another person's life.

(Soundbite of protesters)

CARNEY: For this reason, the activists from the Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women will raise their voices until the government does something to regulate acid.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Carney in Bangalore, India.

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