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The lives of acid attack survivors may be surrounded by stigma but their spirits aren’t. They refuse to be silenced by their attackers!
Yes. They stare into your eyes with their burnt faces and mangled skin, their half-opened eyes and botched body parts. All of these might make you cringe at the first sight. But remember, they have borne in their wombs dark stories originating from the scariest moments of their lives.
Yes, they apply a few coats of make-up to accentuate their features, to laugh away their sorrows as we all do. However, don’t forget the fact that they were beautiful, chirpy girls once.
Their womanhood was their pride, their badge of honour even moments before the perpetrators of heinous crimes threw acid on their faces. After carrying the venom in unsuspecting containers, mostly in broad daylight, to avenge on these seemingly delightful countenances.
Meet the acid attack survivors in the media and public eye, at the Sheroes café, Agra. There is Lakshmi Agrawal, the prime campaigner for the rights of acid attack victims. You’ve probably seen her in the media, quite often, and remember her defiant spirit. Especially after her onscreen portrayal in the movie Chhapaak.
Then there is Nasreen Jahan, the woman with the iron-clad determination. With the trauma of her half-burnt face, scalded neck and shoulders, she rose as a beacon of hope and empowered so many victims through the show ‘Roadies.’
Ritu Saini, Chanchal Kumari, Madhu Kashyap are just some of the names to be reckoned with. Their stories of courage and grit evoke wonder and awe as they serve coffee, snacks and their life stories to the customers at Sheroes café in Agra.
Frustrated psychopathic husbands, jilted lovers, bosses, men whose advances they spurned – the culprits have come in various forms. Sometimes, they also had women accomplices.
These survivors have undergone several reconstructive surgeries and excruciatingly painful ordeals. Thanks to various human rights groups and NGOs, some of them, fortunately, received timely medical and legal assistance. There still are many such women who have succumbed to death after the onslaught.
The ones living with mutilated faces have carried on amid the stigma and societal labels hurled at them. Many of them prefer to cover their faces with scarves. And yet, many others come out uncovered, unapologetic, and recount their stories to the customers from across the world.
Together, these women say: “We are not victims, we are survivors.”
The National Crime Records Bureau documents more than 1000 cases of acid attack on women in India every year. According to Jaf Shah, executive director of the London-based nonprofit Acid Survivors Trust International, there are approximately 10,000 attacks worldwide every year. And the numbers are only dramatically increasing every year in the UK where acid is used as a weapon in gang violence.
Among the various kinds of violence inflicted on women, acid attack is one of the deadliest. It severely burns flesh in a matter of 30 seconds, melting the skin, destroying eyelids, ears and noses, and vital organs exposed to the vitriolic substance. The psychology behind such attacks, Shah says, is to silence women by using extreme levels of violence, so they remain stigmatised and banished behind closed curtains.
“It should be our continued effort to create awareness about the pain and suffering it causes to the victims, to rehabilitate them as self-dependent individuals.” Says Dr Shilpi Bhadhani, renowned plastic and aesthetic surgeon from India.
The survivors need exhaustive treatment and therapy with an extended hospital stay which includes cosmetic surgeries and scar corrections. Doctors also need to salvage the eyes and the vision of the survivors.
Along with this, Dr Bhandani says the survivors need psychological support, psychiatric interventions and counselling too. However, since many of these women belong to the lower socio-economic backgrounds, how much of this would be possible on a larger scale in our society?
Additionally, acid is widely available in stores as a clean agent in India. And the laws regarding acid regulation that were passed in 2013 have rendered quite ineffective until now. According to the law, the attackers, once prosecuted, face a minimum of 10 years of jail time.
However, the truth is that most of the culprits do not get caught or punished. Plus, the cases taking years to go onto trail leaves a dent in the judicial system.
The tale of Lakshmi Agrawal’s triumph against the menace of an acid attack, adapted into the film ‘Chhapaak’ directs us into the psyche of an acid attack survivor. In the course of the narrative, the film also poses integral questions regarding the laws and regulations of acid sales in India.
The protagonist, Malti Aggarwal along with her foundation collects funds for treatment and legal action for victims and finally manages to send the criminals to jail. At the same time, there are other attacks with an alarming frequency which prove that acid is still indiscriminately bought, sold and exploited in India.
Don’t forget, anyone can be the victim of an acid attack. It is necessary for us to raise our voices to spread awareness and to demand stronger legal action!
A version of this was earlier published here.
Picture credits: Still from Bollywood movie Chhapaak
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Lopa Banerjee is an author, editor, translator and faculty of Creative Writing at Richland College,
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