Described as a “worldwide phenomenon,” incident rates of acid attacks have been swiftly increasing in recent years.
From the United Kingdom and France to Bangladesh and India, 1,500 cases are reported annually. Unfortunately, this figure is “massively underreported” as many victims, afraid of retaliation and threatened by their attackers, do not report their attacks to police. Many organizations work towards harsher legislation against perpetrators as well as stricter restrictions on the purchase of acid.
However, the rehabilitation of victims is also a serious issue that needs to be addressed.
In many communities, victims of acid attacks are ostracized and alienated due to the archaic belief that women’s worth is dependent on their beauty. Women are expected to isolate themselves and are “left to rot in their houses like vegetables.” As explained by campaigner and recipient of the 2014 International Woman of Courage award, Laxmi Agarwal, “the biggest challenge (was) people’s reactions” as many friends and relatives cut off ties when she left home without covering her face. These reactions exacerbate the psychological trauma already experienced by survivors following their attacks and confines them to their homes.
Several organizations are tackling this social stigma to help women re-join public life. Chhanv Foundation and the Stop Acid Attacks campaign supports women who are “relegated to the fringes of society” by building a “bridge between survivors and the society.” They collaborated with tattoo studios Body Canvas to host workshops allowing survivors like Madhu Kashyap, who is interested in design, to nurture their skills and ensure that their aspirations prior to their attacks are still achievable.
In 2014, they founded The Sheroes Hangout Café, a café run entirely by acid attack survivors, in order to provide a livelihood. The café aims to help victims ‘regenerate’ the professional aspirations and ‘cultivate’ skills they already possess. Kashyap, who struggled to find employment following her attack, joined Sheroes and now earns Rs 8,000. Rupa discovered a natural talent for fashion design during her recovery. She earns Rs 20,000 per month by running a boutique at the café and is raising money to launch an online shop for ‘Rupa’s Creations.’
By placing survivors directly in the public’s eye, they facilitate the sensitization of society to the physical appearance of survivors. As explained by survivor Ritu Saini who had previously been forced into seclusion, working at the café also gave her “the confidence to go out with my face uncovered,” supporting her reintegration in society.
Depliex Smileagain Foundation, a Pakistani organization, aims to support the “re-absorption (of survivors) in the mainstream society.” In order to do so, they provide rehabilitation services from medical treatments and vocational training to job placement and support groups. In the last decade, 700 survivors have received support from the foundation. Survivors are employed as beauticians in the salon, a move that has demonstrated a ‘slow but gradual’ change in society’s perceptions of them. Many also receive support in launching their own enterprises.
Make Love Not Scars, a non-governmental organization, aims to “provide dignity and independence” to survivors. They do this not only through medical treatments and legal support but also by offering “education, vocational and psychological rehabilitation” through therapy and campaigns to support educational and professional pursuits.
A charity fashion show organized by the center in late 2017 aimed to raise money for survivors and spark support for policy reforms. Ten survivors took to the catwalk to allow people to witness the impact of these attacks first-hand and gain “an entirely different understanding of” these atrocities. It also gave women, who faced public social rejection, confidence and a sense of self-acceptance. These women made a point to demonstrate the ‘ugliness’ of society, which should be responsible to “change its thinking” and look beyond physical appearances to find true beauty
Another of their campaigns, #SkillsNotScars, offers the first job portal for survivors, allowing them to interact directly with employers. Survivors have discussed their difficulties in finding employment, despite being highly qualified, on the basis of their physical appearance. Agarwal explains how she was repeatedly told she would ‘scare’ colleagues and clients. As explained by the Acid Survivors & Women Welfare Foundation, while many are hindered by their injuries, there are also many who can work and be self-sufficient, given the opportunity. This pioneering service hopes to allow employers to relate to and get to know job applicants more personally in the hopes of providing economic mobility and empowering victims.
The financial independence gained from employment allows survivors to support their families and fund treatment for their injuries.
These projects also create a support network and community for survivors. As explained by Rupa, an employee of The Sheroes Hangout Café, she was able to make friends and has “great support,” all of which was denied to her before. This is important to facilitate their psychological rehabilitation and combat issues such as anxiety and depression, which are common following attacks.
Acid is often the weapon of choice by perpetrators who want to permanently disfigure, knowing that women will be shunned and unable to resume public life. Not only do these institutions support women in overcoming these challenges, they take this power away from the perpetrators.
By ensuring that survivors are not excluded from society, these movements undermine the motivation behind acid attacks and can hopefully reduce their incident rates.