Laxmi Aggarwal spent eight years hiding her face, which was disfigured by a man who had hurled acid at her. But when India exploded in outrage over a gang rape on a bus last year, she had a revelation.
“So many rape survivors came out to speak in public, and their trauma was a lot like mine,” said Aggarwal, a thin-framed 24-year-old. “I did not join the protest, but the wave of anger that swept the country gave women like me some courage.”
Today, Aggarwal is the face of a new campaign called Stop Acid Attacks, which seeks to bring together survivors of acid attacks, educate people about the abuse and push the government for long-term medical treatment for victims.
Until March, an acid attack was not even a separate punishable offense under Indian law.
The fatal gang rape in December of the young woman in New Delhi generated an unprecedented outcry on Indian streets and on television, and led to tougher laws on brutal sexual assaults. It also forced Indians to confront a host of other forms of abuse of women that had been ignored or often went unpunished.
In March, the government passed a law that for the first time created specific criminal charges for stalking, voyeurism, acid attacks and the forcible public disrobing of women, an act sometimes carried out in rural areas to cause humiliation. Under the new law, a person convicted of an acid attack faces a minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum life sentence.
Mary E. John, of the Center for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi, noted that in the past, victims were often accused of inciting the abuses. That attitude has changed.
“This has forced people to look at violence against women in a way they hadn’t earlier,” she said. “They are now making connections with entrenched inequalities in society, the political and economic context in which the violence occurs.”
For a rapidly modernizing nation with Asia’s third-largest economy and three-fourths of its population younger than 35, the rampant violence against women is an anomaly.
Last month, India’s Supreme Court admonished the government for lacking the “seriousness” to address the acid-throwing. “Girls are being attacked every day in different parts of the country,” the court said.
In a sweeping decision, the court ordered the government to limit over-the-counter acid sales to people over 18 who provided identification and a reason for the purchase. The court ruled that the government should make acid attacks a non-bailable offense and pay about $6,000 to each survivor within 15 days of the attack for preliminary medical care.
India is a latecomer to addressing the problem; neighboring Bangladesh and Afghanistan already have laws against acid attacks. Although a few activists in southern and eastern India have fought on behalf of survivors, the issue drew little national attention.
No official data exist on the number of such assaults in India because until this year acid attacks had not been considered a separate crime. But activists at Stop Acid Attacks say at least two or three cases are reported every week in the increasingly attentive domestic media.
“Until recently, the acid attacks were registered as grievous-assault cases by the police,” said Aparna Bhat, an attorney for Aggarwal who filed the Supreme Court petition seeking the limits on acid sales and compensation for survivors. “The words ‘acid attack’ would be recorded once or twice in the victim’s long statement, but it was so insignificant that the judge could easily miss it and not know how gruesome it is.”
Bhat advised Aggarwal to lift her veil at the trial of her assailant in 2009. “I wanted the judge to see what that man had done to her and not forget her face,” Bhat recalled. As soon as she stepped out of the courtroom, though, Aggarwal would pull the veil over her face again.
This year, Aggarwal has appeared without a veil at countless advocacy meetings and on television shows. Last month, she handed India’s minister of home affairs, Sushilkumar Shinde, a petition she launched on Change.org calling for a curb on acid sales. It drew more than 27,000 signatures.
She opened a Facebook account two months ago and boasts of scores of new friends.
“I now realize that hiding my face is the same as staying silent, especially when everybody around me is speaking up,” she said.
Aggarwal, the daughter of a domestic cook, was 16 when a 32-year-old man began pursuing her. After she refused his repeated proposals of marriage, he roared up on a motorcycle with an accomplice and threw acid on her face, chest and hands.
“I lost my childhood that day. I stopped going to school and lost all my friends,” Aggarwal said. “People stared at me and mocked me. Neighbors and relatives blamed me and said I must have done something wrong to earn the man’s wrath. My only fault was I refused the man’s proposal.”
A court sentenced Aggarwal’s assailant, Nahim Khan, to 10 years in prison and his accomplice to seven years under the grievous-assault law.
Women’s rights campaigners say acid attacks must be seen as part of a broader pattern of behavior.
“Many of these acid attacks on women are preceded by persistent stalking and harassment by men. Only if the police investigate stalking seriously can we prevent acid attacks,” said Kavita Krishnan, national secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association.
For years , stalking has been dismissed by many Indians as “Eve-teasing,” a euphemism that refers to biblical first woman. Bollywood movies are filled with scenes of heroes harassing women as part of a standard courtship ritual.
“The new laws are good, but what are we doing to address the central question of masculinity that says the woman has no right to say no?” Krishnan asked.
Since March, about 25 acid attack survivors have been meeting regularly at the Stop Acid Attacks office in New Delhi.
“On the first day, it was very unsettling to meet others,” Aggarwal recalled. “For so long I thought I was alone in this sadness.”
At that initial meeting, the women didn’t talk much.
“But when we met the second time, we were unstoppable,” Aggarwal said. “We went to watch a cricket match. Without our veils.”