“Beauty is only skin deep.” Whoever came up with this line probably had never met an acid attack victim.
It was a regular summer morning, Laxmi stood by the bus stop, waiting for the bus…waiting for a new start. She yearned to sing and dreamed to conquer the violin someday. She had signed up for a violin class which was due to start the very next day. Excited and lost in her dreams of a bright, vivid future, little did Laxmi know that her life would take a horrible turn that day. On that dreadful morning of April 2005, a man, twice her age, who had been stalking Laxmi for a year, threw a beer bottle full of acid onto her, thus disfiguring her face and her soul forever. Her crime: she had refused his advances and marriage proposal.
Laxmi’s story is just one among thousands of other women all across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Cambodia, even America, who’ve been victims of an acid attack and have been living a nightmarish life ever since.
Acid attacks are a gruesome reality, increasing at a surprising pace across the globe. Crimes involving revenge are usually and more commonly linked to terrorism, rape or murder. But this act of getting back is far beyond horrendous. Thousands of girls, every year, fall prey to this inhuman act and are hence forced to live their lives in isolation, confining themselves to the walls of their homes, refusing to mingle among the crowds in fear of being looked down upon, loathed upon and worse: bombarded with questions that force them to relive those horrific moments again and again.
Acid attack survivor Thong Kham sheds tears as she talks about her scars in a result.
‘I felt as if someone had set my whole body on fire. The skin was just coming off, it was like dripping, from my hands and from my face.’ – Laxmi Agrawal
And all of this just because these victims ended relationships, rejected marriage proposals, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and demands for dowry. Whatever the reason maybe, but it absolutely does not give anyone the right to spoil a person’s life so horrendously.
In pain: Acid Attack victim Reshma has her mother attempt to ease some of her discomfort by rubbing a cream
According to recent studies, the number of acid attack related admissions in hospitals, has almost doubled in the last decade. More than 1500 cases of acid violence are recorded every year worldwide. In 2015 alone, there were 75 registered cases of acid attack across India, out of which 55 cases occurred in the month of August! Whereas England registered 106 cases of acid violence in the year 2015. And these are only the registered ones, as many victims do not report attacks in order to evade a police case. Globally, an estimated 80% of victims are women. But in England, 6 out of 10 of victims are male.
“Our men throw acid in our faces, destroy our lives but we never stop loving men.”
A woman from West Yorkshire, who didn’t want her identity to be disclosed, said she had acid thrown at her three years ago by a man she had never seen before but who had followed her home twice before the attack. “The third time it happened, I felt really intimidated. I turned around to see who it was and he was standing there with a bottle and bag looking at me. I didn’t know what was in it.
“I turned around and carried on walking, this time at a pace. But he just followed. I looked over my shoulder again and that’s when it happened. It was so fast, he threw the liquid at me. It hit my neck. I’ve never felt something so strong, it was a really strange sensation, as if something was breaking through my skin. I was so distressed but I didn’t want my family to find out, so I ran home.”
“My neck started to blister. I frantically tried to wash it off with water in the bathroom sink, but that seemed to make it worse. I know it sounds terrible but I tried to pick at it, just to get it off my skin. For the next two weeks I didn’t go out, I was in total shock. I was worried about my mum finding out.”
The woman said she did not file a report because she thought that the man who attacked her was dangerous and could even try to harm her mother. “I just didn’t want any backlash. It’s just me and my mum you see … I didn’t want her to be attacked. I still feel self-conscious and nervous if I go out of the house, and I’m afraid of strangers.”
Another incidence from Bengaluru, India, reports a woman named Simi Rao, a 37 year old former school teacher and mother of two, who was attacked by her husband, who threw acid right onto her face and neck. Her crime: she was beautiful and her husband was insanely jealous of the admiring glances that she got. She has been undergoing facial reconstruction surgeries ever since. “My life will never be the same”, she says.
A victim of an acid attack poses for her photograph to raise awareness to stop attacks in India.
In another case, Rachna, a 26 year old girl met a gym trainer over Facebook and they fell in love in 2012. They got married a year later. Everything seemed like a fairytale until the fateful day of June 26, 2013 when her husband took her out for a long drive and stopped the car near a deserted spot, threw acid on her face and drove off, leaving her helpless, screaming in pain. He suspected her fidelity.
Acid attack victims, from left, Laxmi, 24, Chanchal, 19, and Sonam, 16, interact in the office of the Indian NGO Stop Acid Attacks, in New Delhi, India.
“It was as if someone had set me on fire. I cried out in excruciating pain” – Haseena Hussain
Haseena who worked as a computer operator, refused the advances of her boss, Joseph Rodrigues, who kept harassing her until she finally she left his failing company and joined another firm. When she refused to return, Joseph poured a jar full of sulphuric acid over her on 20th April, 1999 which resulted in severe disfigurement of her face & body & complete loss of sight. “You didn’t listen to me…now you see how you will live your life like this”, were the last words Joseph said to her right before destroying her life.
Haseena Hussain : Before and after the attack.
The severity of the acid burn caused a hole in her head, dissolved her lips, nose, ear lobes, welded one side of her neck to her shoulder, and fused her fingers together. 18 surgeries and $10,000 worth of surgeries later, she remains blind and severely disfigured. But Haseena was not weak and she was definitely not ready to give up. She stood up and refused to live her life in misery. She decided to work hard and rebuilt her life from scratch and succeeded in doing so. She is currently part of an NGO called ‘Make Love Not Scars’ where she talks to other acid attack victims and inspires them to not give up on their lives.
Acid attack victim Laxmi Agrawal, on the other hand, is the face of India’s Acid Attack Campaign: Stop Acid Attacks. She is also the face of Viva N Diva, a fashion campaign that celebrates beauty in a different way: Courage. Laxmi has been constantly working towards helping out other acid attack victims by offering them an inspiration of her own life story and assuring them that they aren’t alone.
Finding jobs is difficult because of their disability. Unlike other attacks, acid also eats away deeply into the flesh. Recovery and reconstructive surgery is prolonged and costly.
But not all victims share the same fate as Laxmi and Haseena. It is tough being a deformed, disfigured face in this cruel world. People avoid conversations, even contact with acid violence survivors. In many cases, their own families abandon them due to the huge expenses of the recurring and frequent surgeries. Many companies deny employment and the victims are forced to beg or much worse end their lives in depression. Such, is the life of an acid attack survivor: a desolate, never ending, painful hell.
“My life was divided into two parts – before the accident and after the accident. In the latter, I had to learn everything from scratch. Whatever I knew earlier was of no use now as I couldn’t implement or use it in my life. From walking independently to doing my own personal work, I had to learn everything again,” – Haseena Husain
Little has been done to combat such attacks. Firstly, despite strict laws, acid is easily available in the market. Highly concentrated acids are readily accessible in India for use as household and industrial cleaners.The liquids are often produced locally and are dirt cheap. Although the Supreme Court of India did restrict the sales of acid to those people who provided proof of age and identity, but this ruling is practically of no help as many of the individual State governments are yet to implement them.
As she was: Since the attack, the once out-going Reshma has become reclusive.
Though it is impossible to ban the sale of acid altogether, what needs to be changed is the attitude of the society. People don’t think of the consequences. 90% of the cases involve men under the influence of alcohol. And not only acid attacks, but majority of other brutal crimes like rape, murder and even domestic abuse involve people acting under the influence of alcohol. What can be done is the regulation of the sales of alcohol and banning other psychologically impairing drugs.
Secondly, insufficient compensation to the victims is a big issue that needs to be dealt with. Even if survivors of these attacks qualify for a small disability — between $66 and $160 a month – this is hardly enough to cover the expenses of medical treatment, running to as much as $5,000 and more.
Vinodini, 23, died on Feb. 12, three months after being attacked by a man who was sentenced to life imprisonment after she died, but will probably appeal the verdict. Jayalakshmi, a mother of two, was attacked so badly by her husband that her nose melted instantly and she still cannot breathe normally 11 years after the attack. Such crimes demand justice and justice is far from being served. Some of the accused men are now in custody awaiting trial but many are out on bail. With the accused roaming about the streets freely, ready to strike again, it is necessary that acid attacks become a non-bailable offence.
Acid violence has become part of society. We need honest conversations about relationships earlier with young people. Men no longer are trained to love and respect women. It is essential that we understand the fact that, if you don’t get what you want it’s not OK to act like this. Young men need to be educated on how to sort out issues without getting aggressive and resorting to violence.
“I cannot be my beautiful self again, but that has not kept me from dreaming.”
And as for the victims of such horrendous crimes, it is necessary for us to stand by them and respect them for their never ending struggles in life and constantly reminding them that they are still one of us; that they deserve to live the life that they desire.