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India's acid victims hope for new life after court orders free treatment

India's acid victims hope for new life after court orders free treatment

NEW DELHI: Rupa Saa was just 15 when her stepmother poured acid over her face as she slept, burning her skin and melting her cheeks, nose, mouth and chin.

The attack was just the beginning of her suffering.

Like many of India's acid victims, she was shunned due to her disfigurement and struggled to pay for the multiple reconstructive surgeries she needed - leaving her despondent and with little will to live.

But a recent ruling by country's top court could be a game changer for victims like Saa - providing them with free medical treatment and specifying a minimum compensation of 300,000 rupees ($4,800).

“I was devastated by the acid attack. I did not want to live any more. My life was shattered. I cannot describe the pain and suffering I endured,” said Saa, now 22.

“It's a good (court) judgement. Although the amount of compensation is very little, the order by the court will give us a better life and future,” Saa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Agra, around 200 km (130 miles) south of New Delhi.

Acid attacks, meant to maim, disfigure or blind, occur in many countries.

They are most common in Cambodia, as well as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

According to India's home ministry, the number of reported acid attacks has surged.

There were 309 acid attack cases reported in 2014 compared to 66 cases the previous year.

Yet most victims - many of whom are women who have spurned sexual advances or rejected a marriage proposal - do not receive any financial or medical help, and endure years of mental and physical pain.

“The lack of rehabilitation is one of the biggest problems that survivors face,” said Alok Dixit from the campaign group Stop Acid Attacks.

“Most victims come from poor families and therefore cannot afford the full medical treatment and just get very basic treatment. Others end up selling off all their assets, including property, to pay for these surgeries and they end up in debt.”

Rupa Saa was a bright student living in the town of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh state. She had big dreams before the night in August 2008 when she was attacked by her stepmother, who she said did not want her to stay at home.

“My entire body was burning. I cried for help. I could not see anything. It was really horrifying for me. I thought that I could die,” she said.

Her father refused to support her, taking the side of her stepmother who was arrested and served 18 months in prison.

Over the years, Saa's uncle, who is a barber, has supported her but has been driven into debt by the multiple surgeries she has required, costing more than 400,000 rupees ($6,400).

With help from Stop Acid Attacks she received some vocational training and more funds for her treatment and is now working as a designer in a small boutique in Agra city.

In April 2013, India made acid attacks an offence, adding that both medical attention and compensation must be given to victims, but it did not specify the type of treatment or the amount of funds to be given.

Lawyers fighting for victims said this left gaps in the law and made it easy for hospitals to give only basic aid. “The judgement says that no private hospital can refuse free treatment to a victim of an acid attack,” said Aparna Bhat, a lawyer representing acid victims seeking better rehabilitation.

“This means not just first aid, but all the necessary operations and surgeries, accommodation and medicine costs will be taken care of by the hospitals,” she told New Delhi Television (NDTV) after Friday's court ruling.

State authorities had to take action against any hospitals that turned away victims, the court had added.

Bhat said the court also reiterated an order that those buying acid needed a license and vendors had to record sales.

But activists say the government needs to do more to regulate the sale of locally produced household cleaners, which contain highly concentrated acids, that are easily and cheaply available in markets across the country.

Acids are being used as weapons, they say, adding that there needs to be a separate law to deal with the sale and purchase chemicals which include neat hydrochloric and sulphuric acids.

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