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Laxmi Agarwal
On April 22 of 2005, 15-year-old Laxmi Agarwal waited patiently at the Khan Market bus stop. Moments later, she found herself losing consciousness. India ranks number one on the global charts when it comes to acid attacks on women. Each week, an estimated three individuals fall victim to this crime. Acid attacks against women, like other forms of violence against women, have roots in a deep level of misogyny. This is evident in Laxmi Agarwal’s story.

Laxmi Agarwal

Laxmi recounted the events of her acid attack in an interview with Vogue, “… A 32-year-old man proposed marriage to me. I said no. On April 19, he sent me a text proclaiming that he loves me and wants to marry me, and I didn’t respond. He texted me again, demanding a response, but I never did… He, along with his brother’s girlfriend stopped me outside the bus stand in Khan Market. The girl pushed me and threw the acid she was holding on my face.”

After undergoing a series of reconstructive surgeries, Laxmi could barely recognize herself, but this did not infringe on her perseverant drive to bring awareness to what had happened to her.

Change in Policy

The survivor took her case to India’s Supreme Court. Her case resulted in the institution of new regulations and penalties. Now, both federal and state governments are required to monitor the sales and purchases of acid. Laxmi Agarwal’s bravery prompted new, long-overdue conversations regarding the violence against women in India. As a result, legislation passed that continues to give harsher repercussions to rapists and offenders.

Change in Society

Laxmi fought long and hard to reclaim her face and life after her attack. She addressed the difficulties and struggles of trying to find a job after having society ostracize her for the burns on her face. To further normalize the rehabilitation process for acid attack survivors, Laxmi Agarwal joined and established numerous rehabilitation groups. One such group is a cafe that acid attack survivors run entirely. She works passionately to provide a safe space in which the girls who experienced acid burns can make friends and regain confidence without fear of societal judgment. She offers additional assistance, and encourages others to do the same through offering support to groups such as “Make Love, Not Scars.” This group hosts events such as fashion shows specifically for victims of acid attacks.

Besides donating to such organizations and educating people on the causes and effects of acid attacks, Laxmi Agarwal has entirely dedicated herself to spreading awareness. She worked alongside Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone to turn her story into a movie, “Chhapaak,” released in Jan. 2020. Since then, Laxmi Agarwal has turned this seemingly negative experience into a learning opportunity. She has gone on to receive awards such as the International Women Empowerment Award. Her activism to better the treatment of women in her country has yielded tangible results, which have aided victims and raised awareness about the issue of acid attacks on women at large.

Meghana Nagendra
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Acid Attack Survivors
Terrifying acid attacks in India are rising in number according to ABC News. Advocates for acid attack survivors estimate that around 1,000 attacks take place per year in the country. However, only 300 cases get reported due to fear of retribution. It can take up to 10 years for an abuser to face justice, and still, some get off scot-free.

Gender-Based Violence

India has more acid attacks than any other country in the world. With patriarchal arranged marriages common, unsatisfied husbands are often the perpetrators. In these attacks, a person throws acid on the woman’s face and body with the intent to disfigure her permanently. Men commit these gendered acts of violence out of jealousy, for retribution or for any “wrongdoing” that they believe has occurred.

Once a woman endures such an attack, she is expected to cover her face in public. Oftentimes, she must hide in the home of a family member since it is difficult to find employment under these circumstances. Society tends to reject disfigured acid attack survivors, who are then unable to find employment due to the prejudicial belief that they deserved the violence. As a result, it is nearly impossible for a woman to support herself or her children, which throws them into abject poverty.

An NGO for Survivors

In 2014, Make Love Not Scars (MLNS) launched in Delhi as the first nonprofit center for the rehabilitation of acid attack victims. Ria Sharma is the founder of the organization. After completing graduate work in the United Kingdom, Sharma came back to India to make a documentary film on acid attack survivors. Her work on the film inspired her to start an NGO to assist the survivors with recovery

Psychological and Physical Recovery

Sharma has stated that the main focus of the organization’s efforts is to enable acid attack survivors to recover both psychologically and socially. The survivors need to regain confidence, which is a difficult task after enduring an attack that often disfigures a person for life. The women suffer immense physical trauma as well as long-term psychological repercussions. MLNS addresses the impact of such an attack by encouraging the victims to enroll in courses that will enable them to earn a regular income. The organization also helps pay for these courses. In this way, MLNS works to alleviate global poverty by helping the victims make a living. Otherwise, the survivors would have difficulty in finding a job after such a devastating and disfiguring experience.

Funding for Medicine and Legal Aid

In addition to offering psychological aid, MLNS raises money to provide for women’s medicine, surgery and vital post-operative care. The charity also helps survivors of acid attacks connect with leading pro-bono lawyers who volunteer to help victims in India.

New Laws Help Prevent Acid Attacks

Some countries are enacting laws and restrictions that reduce the number of acid attacks. For example, in Bangladesh, these attacks have gone down in number after the death penalty was introduced for the crime. Additionally, the sale of common chemicals used in the attacks is now restricted in Bangladesh. Advocates for victims hope that similar laws will be instated in India.

MLNS Founder Honored

In 2016, Make Love Not Scars ran a campaign named #EndAcidSale, which called for a universal ban on acid sales. The campaign won a Gold Cannes Lion award in the category of film. Then in 2017, Sharma won the United Nations Bill and Melinda Gates GoalKeepers Global Goals Award, becoming the first Indian to receive the honor. Sharma has stated that MLNS would like to expand its work into other areas of gender-based violence and burn victims.

Sarah Betuel
Photo: Flickr