Anshu Rajput was 15 years old when a 55-year-old neighbourhood uncle threw acid on her. He had been following her around for days until one day, he professed his love for her. She spurned him away. Weeks later, on the night of February 12, 2014, her life changed forever.
"Per our normal routine, my family and I had dinner together and around 7 PM, laid out our beds to sleep in the aangan," she told SheThePeople in an interview. "Past midnight, I was jolted awake when something like hot water hit my face. I got out of bed, confused, scared. My face began burning; I shrieked in pain. My family woke up and Maa tried to wipe my face–her hands also got burnt. It was then we realised that someone had thrown acid on me."
They saw the middle-aged man, the same one who had confronted Anshu, escaping over the wall. Meanwhile, her skin was burning and vision began blurring. She was rushed to a hospital in nearby Bijnor city, where the doctors told her parents they should say their last goodbyes to her.
India has no dearth of such stories. Gender-based violence has lodged itself inextricably into our society's way of life and has, more or less, become normalised. Women spurning male suitors away have to live with the fear of either, like Anshu, being burnt with acid or even killed. Are law and order systems ensuring enough safety for us?
Globally, acid attacks are recognised as a form of violence that predominantly affects women.
According to data by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), India recorded a total of 659 reported acid attack cases between 2018 and 2020, with almost 200 more cases of attempts to attack. The conviction rate in the broad classification that includes this type of hurt is only 41.9 percent.
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It took hours and days of treatment but Anshu survived. But things weren't all rosy. Her return home to her village was followed by a period of reclusion and living in deep shame. "The worst day of my life was when I saw myself in the mirror for the first time. People laughed at me and abused me. Kids were scared of me. Villagers told my parents, ‘She’s a burden. Who will marry her now?’ I became suicidal," she says.
While our legal systems and the general public recognise the severity of acid attacks, the consciousness of sensitivity towards survivors is largely absent. For looking different, they are turned away from opportunities, rights and dignity. And society's curses follow second on the list; families themselves don't flinch turning away from their daughters coping with the trauma that follows acid attacks.
Shaheen Malik, the coordinator for Meer Foundation in Delhi, recalls the day in 2009 when a man threw acid on her. She worked at an office where she claims some colleagues disliked her. On November 19, after work, she was waiting at a bus stop when the man beside her - his face shielded by a handkerchief - threw green liquid on her face. She can only see from one eye today.
"I have to seek lifelong treatment if I want to retain my vision. And 25 surgeries on, many still remain," she tells SheThePeople. "My family supported me a lot during the initial months, paying lakhs for the hospital bills and standing behind me in emotional support. But after a point, they threw up their hands and began feeling I was a burden. Our society may seem modern and advanced, but the truth is, it still is one where families don't want girls living at home beyond a certain age."
"There were two options for me after it happened - either sit in a corner and weep or get out there and make something of my life."
In 2013, Shaheen took the second route and has been working with foundations and women's organisations for the welfare of fellow acid attack survivors across India - serving the community and securing financial independence for herself, both.
"My family still has reservations about me showing my face, out and proud, in public. But I tell them this is who I am now. My face is not going to change. I have that much confidence because I am independent. What happened was not my choice, but how I want to live now is my choice."
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How Acid Attack Survivors Are Rebuilding Themselves
As for Anshu, her school struck off her name in 2014, following the acid attack. That jolted her out of her remorseful isolation and she took it upon herself to continue her education. "My blood boiled–How could they stop me from studying? I gathered whatever courage I had and told the school authorities, ‘The next time you see me, I will have become something.’"
"For the first time, newspapers began coming home. In 2015, I read an article about a Hangout, a collective of acid attack survivors living and working together in Agra. A week later, I covered my face as usual and travelled to Agra with my mother. They said they would help me find work and legal aid."
"At the end of that day, exactly after 240 days, I lifted the scarf off my face for the first time. It was a feeling I couldn't explain. I felt as if I could breathe again. I had gained a new identity."
Today, she is 23 and works for the same collective, Lucknow as a reachout associate, assisting other survivors and organising community events. "Life’s still not easy," she says. "And will never be. But I am independent. Back in the village, my parents are proud of me. I help them financially when I can. Those who once cursed me now tell them, ‘Beti ho toh Anshu jaisi.’
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Anshu's attacker was arrested only hours after the incident occurred in 2014. On March 5, 2020, a court in Bijnor gave her the justice she had been seeking for years; the accused was sentenced to life imprisonment. "My friends gifted me a cake that said, 'Sangharsh ki jeet.'"
"Someone changed my life eight years ago and with a lot of strength, I changed it back in my favour. I picked myself up and fought for what I deserved. There’s no fear today."
Working with 300 survivors across 12 states, Shaheen has her ear close to the ground. She says that though the Supreme Court's orders are usually favourable for acid attack survivors, the implementation is zero.
Acid attack survivors are included in the centre's Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 and are thus entitled to compensation within three months; a minimum of three lakh rupees is mandated by the apex court and as reiterated by an advisory of the Ministry of Home Affairs. But Shaheen claims the execution of these rulings is hardly ever timely. "I oversee litigation as well and have cases where the survivor had to wait 18 years to claim their compensation. There are a lot of gaps in the law still," she says.
Her own story did not end in retributive justice, as Anshu's did.
For four years, Shaheen claims, the police did not take her statement in the case. "There were influential people behind my attack. After everyone turned me away, I wrote a letter to the Haryana government seeking financial help. They sent my letter to the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) for compensation. In October 2013, my statement was taken and my case was reopened. I was appalled to see that police had said in their statement that they didn't know the survivor's address!"
She applied for a transfer petition at the Supreme Court and her case was moved to Delhi. "For 12 years, the trial in my case has been ongoing. All accused are out on bail. And I am still seeking justice. Society takes a long time to accept the survivor, but not the attacker."
Feature image: Photos by Anshu Rajput for SheThePeople