Op-Ed

Young woman who was victim of brutal acid attack in Nepal has been unable to see justice served — but that may change

If Nepal’s government follows through on a Supreme Court ruling, acid attack and burn victims will no longer have to suffer in silence

Chameli Magar feeds her daughter, Sangita Magar, then 16, on a hospital bed as she underwent treatment after an unidentified person attacked her with a bottle of acid in Kathmandu two years ago. (REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar)

The Supreme Court of Nepal recently recommended that its government should change a law, which has made it impossible for victims of acid attacks and other burning crimes to get adequate compensation in those cases where they are related to their perpetrators.

Rihana Sheikh Dhapali was 19 when she was married off in 2013 to Farid Sheikh, a man she had never met before. At the time, his family members, based in Western Nepal, made it clear that they didn’t want any dowry. Later, his relatives changed their mind and demanded a buffalo and a motorcycle. Rihana’s family was not able to provide this, a shortcoming that dramatically changed the path of her life forever.

Rihana’s new family forced her into domestic servitude and to wash herself with mud. When her father gave her a bar of soup, it was taken away. And while her husband’s family ate well, she was handed leftovers. She dreamed of leaving but her father convinced her to stay.

Over time, Farid began to beat her, sometimes with a belt. On one occasion he burned her genitals with a cigarette, but there was worse to come. Farid’s family starved her for several days before tying her up and splashing petrol onto her body. Her husband then set her on fire and the entire family watched as she burned. She fell unconscious and was left to die.

Three days later Rihana woke up, consumed by pain. She was seven months pregnant at the time and miscarried shortly afterwards. While finally getting treatment for her burns in the hospital, Farid tried to rape her. Rihana managed to finally escape and has since pressed charges, but nobody has been convicted for the horrific crimes carried out against her.

Sangita Magar was just 16 when a man broke into her classroom and threw acid on her and a friend who was standing close by. The acid caused extensive burns across not only their faces but over their entire bodies. Sangita has already received treatment for her burns, but unless she gets urgent medical attention she may lose her sight as her condition deteriorates.

Her attacker, Jiwan BK, had been a tenant in Sangita’s home, where he claimed to have become infatuated with her. When she rejected his advances he decided to punish her. The high-profile case sent shockwaves through Nepal and can claim to have laid the groundwork for the recent judgment.

Outrage on this issue has been growing for years but it wasn’t until last September that a public interest case on this issue was filed by the Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD), another local organization and these two burn survivors, Rihana and Sangita.

According to Nepal’s law as it stands, anyone who commits a crime of domestic violence can be sentenced to up to eight years in prison, pay fines of up to 300,000 rupees and victim compensation of up to 200,000 rupees. However, in practice, only a tiny amount is ever given to a victim for treatment and nothing at all before any final decision is made in the case. This means that victims are rarely able to afford the expensive medical treatment which they are likely to urgently need, causing them to suffer even more pain and putting them at risk of even more permanent harm.

Assuming the government follows through on the court’s recommendation, justice will hopefully now be easier to achieve for all future victims of acid attacks or other burning — including the provision of free immediate treatment before a judgment is handed down.

This would mean that women like Rihana and Sangita will not have to suffer in silence, unable to afford critical care. The stronger law will hopefully also send a signal to Nepalese husbands and their families that they will no longer be able to get away with such horrific abuse of their wives.

We have fought for many years to this, a major step forward for everyone in Nepal, a country that prides itself on its peaceful outlook, but which has struggled for a long time with an epidemic of violence against many of our women and girls.

Sabin Shrestha is Executive Director of the Forum for Women Law and Development (FWLD), the Kathmandu-based partner of international women’s group, Donor Direct Action.

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