THE SUNDAY STORY

What Haseena Hussain still remembers, fourteen years later, is the long wait.

One summer morning in 1999, Joseph Rodriguez, a disgruntled former employer, poured acid on her. The acid burnt over half her body, tearing a hole in her skull and blinding her in both eyes. She would wait four days before she could get aid.

Staff at the nearest hospital didn’t know how to treat burns of this magnitude; another hospital wanted a large deposit before treatment.

Jayalakshmi, from Huliyaru in Tumkur, was taken to a government hospital after her husband threw acid on her in 2003. “We had to wait for a doctor to come down from Bangalore,” she recalls. “The hospital doctors didn’t know how to treat me.”

Survivors of acid violence, such as Haseena and Jayalakshmi in Karnataka, face something of an obstacle course to get support. Most urgent is getting medical help, but securing legal, financial and social support is a hurdle in itself.

The first point of action is to set up specific units devoted to treating acid victims, says Sushma Varma of the Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW). “The corrosive power of acid calls for special medical attention...the systems we have are not suitable.”

The investigative process doesn’t make things easier. “It is hardly gender-sensitive; the focus is often on the moral character of the victim,” says Sushma. Even otherwise, long interrogations may prove difficult for a victim in a precarious physical condition to handle — the High Court judgement in Haseena’s case commends her for “withstanding an onslaught” of “exhaustive,” “gruelling” questions.

Cases are booked under a variety of IPC sections, for instance, 307 (attempt to murder), 320 (causing grievous hurt), and 326 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons). The lack of a single provision also prevents collation of statistics on acid crimes from sources such as the National Crime Records Bureau. Nevertheless, Burnt Not Defeated, a report brought out by CSAAAW in 2007, puts the number at 56 for Karnataka alone between 1999 and 2007.

Meanwhile, once a survivor’s condition has improved, there are further surgeries to be undergone, jobs to be found, money to be organised.

Haseena has undergone 35 surgeries. There are more, every year; but her body cannot handle the strain. Her parents sold their house to pay for the surgeries. Finding a rented house wasn’t easy; landlords feared police or media visits.

Haseena, who is 33 now, says work wasn’t easily found. “Even domestic maid work is not available, because of our disfigurement.” She finally put herself through a computer training course and now works in the front office of a government office.

That the victims do not get much support from government agencies, such as the State-level commissions for women, is another matter of concern.

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