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Acid attack victim rises in hope while justice eludes

'I require multiple surgeries. I have had just the first one in the series of six to seven reconstructive surgeries that will be carried out over a period of 12 months at the BLK Super Speciality Hospital. The improvements right now are too subtle for me to explain, but I am hopeful, very hopeful, that once all the surgeries are done I will be much better,' says Sonali Mukherjee, an acid attack victim from Jharkhand.

Mukherjee's confidence seems super human for someone who has suffered a decade of pain and 22 surgeries, after the fateful night when a group of three youth entered her house and poured acid on her while she was asleep. She was 17 then. Her only crime was that she had dared to protest against the boys for harassing her. 'It was not a one-off incident. They used to harass me everyday. One day, I decided that it was enough and I couldn’t take it lying down anymore,' says the gritty young woman. She was a college student and an NCC cadet when the acid attack took place.

In the 10 years that followed, Mukherjee became a familiar symbol of victimisation that the society didn’t know what to do about. 'Accompanied by my father [Chandi Das Mukherjee], I went to government offices and met representatives of the National Commission for Women. Everyone sympathised with me, but nothing concrete was done about my case,’ she says. Her family had spent lakhs of rupees in surgeries, but they weren't helping.

Mukherjee had lost both eyes due to deep cornea burns and her right ear. She was suffering from near total deafness bilaterally, her ear drums were destroyed, facial tissues deeply scarred, many muscles damaged and she had burns on her back, breasts and upper arms. She couldn't close her eyes, because the lids were damaged. Finally, even her seemingly unending courage collapsed, and a few months ago she appealed to the government to either give her justice or grant her the right to kill herself.

That was when the doctors at the city hospital stepped in. The series of surgeries and treatment that she is undergoing at the hospital is expected to cost Rs 28 lakh to 30 lakh, but while the doctors have waived off their fees, an NGO Beti is raising money for the remaining expenditure. Monetary help for her is pouring in from well-wishers across the country and abroad, says Sanjeev Bagai, one of the doctors treating her.

The promise of recovery has dispelled Sonali’s gloom, and the confidence is back. Doctors treating her are all praise for her spirit.

'Even after so many years of suffering she is so spirited and reasonable. She told us that we should first concentrate on restoring the use of her eyes and ears and the proper functioning of her body, before trying cosmetic improvements,' says Bagai.


SONALI IS COMPLETELY CLUED IN TO HER CONDITION


‘My case is not easy. The past few years have taken their toll on me. I have low blood pressure and a thyroid problem. My weight is also very low. But I am positive about this,' says Sonali. The results of the first surgery has been positive. “We have mobilised skin from her scalp and upper forehead and reconstructed both her eyelids. For the first time in ten years, she can blink. We have also built her up nutritionally and she has gained a little weight' explains Bagai, adding, 'The second stage of surgery will be in mid-October when we will be reconstructing her scalp and forehead and releasing the contractures in her neck and back.'

Sonali is not one to dwell on the past. But she says, ‘I have no regrets for protesting against those men. They are cowards, which is why they attacked on me this way. Crime against women are very common, but most women are too scared to protest. My appeal to every women who have faced any harassment is that they should speak out. Only then, can we hope for justice,’ she stresses.

Meanwhile Sonali is busy planning for the future. ‘I have a few job offers from the Jharkhand government and elsewhere. I want to be economically independent. I want to take care of my family,’ she says. Ask her the source of her strength and she says with a happy laugh, ‘It is god gifted. Also so many people are praying for me. That keeps me going.’
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