|SCARRED FOR LIFE: Akriti Rai, (above) whose soldier husband poured acid on her, at a meeting of acid victims in Biratnagar this month. Rai and others like her said they were going public because their attackers have not yet been punished. Sadina Khatun and her baby were both injured in an acid attack by her husband and her father-in-law, who were acquitted by an appellate court.|
Poverty at home had forced Akriti Rai, 22, to move to Itahari to work. Santosh Rai, a soldier posted at the nearby Nepal Army barrack, fell in love with her and they got married.
Six months later, Santosh, his first wife and sister poured acid on Akriti. Local Maoists rescued her and took her to the women's rehabilitation centre, WOREC, in Biratnagar. The burns on her face had infected, and although she survived, Akriti is scarred for life.
"My future is finished, but my husband and the others must be punished," Akriti told a meeting in Biratnagar recently attended by the chief district officer, police chief, lawyers and doctors. The army said it would carry out an internal investigation, but Santosh has been recently discharged and his wife has been jailed pending investigation at the Sunsari District Jail. His sister has been freed on Rs 10,000 bail.
According to women's rights organisations there have been dozens of cases of acid attacks on women in eastern Nepal in the past three years, but there are many more that are never reported.
Sadina Khatun was breastfeeding her baby near Biratnagar last year when her husband Mohamad Aslam poured acid on her accusing her of having an affair. Both Sadina and her baby were badly burnt. Her husband was arrested the very night of the attack, but was released on bail by the Biratnagar appellate court. "My husband is walking around as if nothing happened," says 20-year-old Sadina who now lives with her parents, "I have no money to take care of my daughter. Please help me to force him to compensate me."
Rita Debi Mahato was attacked last year by four men who accused her of having an affair. Her right eye was destroyed and one year later her face is still deeply scarred and wounds on her chest are suppurating. Police still haven't caught the perpetrators although they are well known locals.
In Sunsari, 18-year-old Indian national Punam Kumari Sabariya was raped by four men who later poured acid on her. Her husband and his family have disowned her.
The culprits haven't been arrested. Palsi Debi Yadav, 17, was doused with acid by her husband and father-in-law who said she didn't bring enough dowry. Palsi Debi's family complained to police, but her in-laws forced her to withdraw it.
Not all the victims are young. Forty-year-old Janaki Debi Mehta was attacked with acid by a group of men for simply speaking up at a meeting to resolve a land dispute. Since a doctor at the Inaruwa district hospital registered the case as an 'accident' the attackers cannot be tried.
Two local organisations, WOREC and SIKSA, are helping the victims seek justice through the court system but are facing numerous legal hurdles. Since most victims survive acid attacks, the courts do not register the cases as 'attempted homicide'. Activists see acid attacks on women as just the outward manifestation of widespread hidden discrimination and cruelty faced by Nepali women.
Says lawyer Dilli Dahal: "There are legal complications, and the fact that police don't do proper investigation after the incidents means most perpetrators escape prosecution."