KATHMANDU, Nepal—As they spent an afternoon lounging at a popular cafe overlooking the historic palace square in the Nepali capital Kathmandu, Sangita Magar and Sima Basnet appeared to be regular diners. The women sipped coffee and spoke about their plans for the future, at times trying to stifle their laughter.
But the circumstances that brought them together were far from normal.
On a February morning three years ago, the two were waiting for their teacher to arrive at a tuition center a few blocks from the cafe when a man stormed the classroom and doused Magar with a flesh-searing acid, leaving her disfigured.
Some of the acid splattered on Basnet, who was sitting next to Magar, burning her forehead and neck.
Magar, now 19, has been forced to undergo multiple surgeries and painful skin grafts since the attack.
“He barged into the room and when we raised our head to see, he hurled acid at my face, neck, chest, arms, and legs,” said Magar.
The horrifying incident shocked Nepal and changed the lives of the teenage girls, who were attacked in retaliation for a family dispute.
Three years later, Magar and Basnet, whose families migrated to Kathmandu from separate districts in eastern Nepal, have moved on.
While Magar’s life still revolves around visits to hospitals, Basnet, now 20, has been educating herself about acid attack survivors in India, where such attacks are widespread.
One year ago, Basnet took a monthlong sojourn to India to meet survivors. Basnet first contacted the New Delhi-based group Stop Acid Attacks (SAA), after watching a video of Indian acid attack survivor and SAA campaigner Laxmi Agarwal.
During her visit to New Delhi, she met Agarwal and Pramodini Roul, a woman who was doused with acid by a spurned lover and lost her vision. Basnet also attended a fashion show hosted by survivors in the northern city of Dehradun and visited a cafe run by acid attack survivors in Agra.
She said the India trip left her with a feeling that her troubles were minor when compared to the suffering of Indian survivors.
“Their stories motivated me to do something, anything for fellow survivors in Nepal,” she said.
Since her return home, she has traveled to several districts of Nepal for campaigns to raise awareness about the attacks. She has also helped raise funds to help survivors with their medical costs.
Basnet was recently joined by Magar, who, until a few months ago, rarely ventured out due to her injuries, but now travels, despite the right side of her face being covered with bandages. The two young women are now working to set up an organization modeled on Stop Acid Attacks in their country.
In recent years, violence against women has seen a sharp increase in Nepal, with the South Asian nation often cited as one of the countries typically associated with acid assaults, along with Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, to name a few.
According to Pratiksha Giri, executive director of Burns Violence Survivors Nepal (BVS-Nepal), a nonprofit that supports survivors, an average of 40 cases of burn violence and acid attacks are reported every year. However, she says, the actual figure could be much higher because many go unreported due to shame and fear of reprisals.
In a recent incident, 18-year-old Samjhana Das and her younger sister were attacked with acid while they were sleeping at their home in southeastern Nepal on Sept. 17. The attacker was a 50-year-old man whose unwanted advances were rejected by Das.
Das, who suffered severe burns to 35 percent of her body, succumbed to her injuries after battling for her life for two weeks at a Kathmandu hospital.
A few days later, a 37-year-old man threw acid at 30-year-old Basanti Pariyar, because she had rejected his marriage proposal. The attack left her with facial burns. Pariyar has been undergoing treatment at a government hospital in Kathmandu.
Basnet said the two attacks further inspired her to raise her voice in support of survivors. Magar, for her part, was one of two petitioners who went to the Supreme Court seeking greater compensation for survivors. As a result, a new criminal code stipulates up to eight years in jail for the convicted and a 300,000-rupee ($2,600) compensation for survivors.
Giri says that the survivors’ plight is worsened by the social stigma they face, as well as a lack of rehabilitation services.
“They are discriminated against at public services such as buses. People also falsely believe that their presence is an ill-omen,” she said.
Since 2010, BVS-Nepal has recorded 249 cases of burns violence, with inter-caste marriage, property dispute, dowries, and extramarital affairs as leading causes of attacks.
Mohna Ansari, a spokeswoman of the National Human Rights Commission, said the government should regulate the sale of acid.
“It should not be easily available. The government might have controlled its sales in cities like Kathmandu, but it also needs to regulate the sales in rural areas,” she said.
The problem ran so deep that campaigns such as raising awareness barely scratched the surface, she said.
“There are both sociological and family factors behind these attacks. Most young people don’t receive good quality education which causes unemployment. It, in turn, leads to frustration,” Ansari said.
Addressing their financial needs through paid volunteer work and allowing them to explore opportunities could help tackle the scourge, she suggested.
While their attacker, Jiwan Bika, remains behind bars, Magar and Basnet said they are still worried about their safety.
“I still fear something might happen. I continue to receive threats from his family,” Magar said.
Basnet echoed her fellow survivor’s sentiment. “Our society blames women for the attack. But it’s men who attack women. After they are released from jail, the convicts must be reformed and educated so that they wouldn’t commit such a crime again,” she said.