Sonali Mukherjee, an acid attack survivor, fights for justice

Posted May 23, 2013 by Raluca Besliu
In 2003, when she was 17, Sonali Mukherjee had a bright future in front of her. She was the capitan of the National Cadet Corps (NCC), the president of the Student Union and an honor student, wishing to pursue a degree in sociology.
Sonali Mukherjee  the victim of a horrible acid attack in 2003.
Sonali Mukherjee, the victim of a horrible acid attack in 2003.
All she wanted to do was provide a better life for her family, whom she had seen struggling for the most basic things.
Everything changed on an April night, when one of her suitors, whose advances she had turned down, alongside two other friends decided to punish her for rejecting him. They broke into her home as she slept and poured Tezaab, a chemical used to clean rusted tools, over her face, leaving 70 percent burns on her skin, melting her eyelids, nose, mouth and ears, and leaving her partially deaf and almost blind. In an interview, she recalled: "I woke up feeling strange. Within a few seconds it felt like my whole body was on fire. I kept screaming in pain till I passed out."
For Sonali, the attack "changed the entire meaning of my life. It felt like the light had gone out all of a sudden, and darkness had surrounded me on all sides. I had no hope, I didn't know what to do." It also profoundly affected her entire family. Her mother went into depression, while her grandfather suffered a heart attack, which caused his death.
The young Indian woman has had to undergo reconstructive surgery 22 times, costing thousands of rupees. She still has nine operations to go, for which she needs "at least 1 to 1.5million rupees (£11,600 to £17,400) to look even remotely human and have my eyesight restored."
In order to pay for her treatment, her family had to sell their ancestral land and her mother’s jewelry, as they received no help from the government.
Her three attackers were sentenced to nine-years in jail, but quickly managed to be released on bail. Her appeal for justice led to no results, as the three men continue to roam freely the streets of her hometown. In an interview, she reacted to their release: My father spent every penny, hoping I would get justice. But in the end we lost everything, while the criminals are out there."
By 2012, Sonali felt fed up with life, so she petitioned the government to approve her euthanasia, which is considered illegal in India. In her letter, she expressed her growing feeling of hopeless, of living without a future and the burden imposed by the lack of justice. As her request was rejected, she decided to fight back, in order to prevent that other girls have to suffer from a similar attack. The first step in her rekindled fight was to participate in and win India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire, which brought her one million rupees. She confessed to CNN that she entered the contest for the money prize, which she desperately needed for her treatment, but also to raise awareness about the suffering of acid attack victims. She also revealed that the newly founded media attention gave her "a platform to air my grievances. After that, support poured in from all quarters. Now I know I am not alone, so I have dropped that idea and am determined to fight like a soldier till the end. If I am alive today, it is all because of media support."
Sonali has been using the fame brought by winning the contest to advocate for women’s rights in India and to put an end to acid attacks. In an interview, she said: "People like these three men, who can spoil someone's life like this in a fraction of a second should be brought to justice. These incidents [of acid attacks] will stop only when people involved are given hard punishments according to the crime they have committed."
In April 2013, India finally passed a law punishing perpetrators of acid attacks with 10 years in prison and a fine.
Sonali believes that it is imperative for the legal measures to be coupled with grassroots measures, such as the establishment of "vigilance committees. I vehemently support a strict and non-bailable section for acid attackers. They should also increase the compensation amount for the victims. Steps should also be taken to rehabilitate them."
She also believes that the government must regulate the sale of cheap and easily available locally-produced household cleaners, containing highly concentrated acids.
Sonali worriedly stressed: "You can buy highly concentrated chemicals like those used on me in most markets for less than 50 rupees a bottle. This is enough to ruin a woman's life. They may not have killed me, but I might as well be dead."