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'I Don't Want To Be Just A Survivor': Moving On From An Acid Attack

24/05/2016 8:08 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Stop Acid Attacks

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Photo credit: Stop Acid Attacks

India's attitude towards acid violence is troubling. A recent attack in Uttar Pradesh hardly received media attention. In another instance, when assailants threw a chemical substance at Adivasi activist Soni Sori two months ago, it even caught human rights advocates by surprise; for a while, no one knew what had caused the burns on her face.

Our collective lack of public awareness about acid violence has distanced more survivors from the realm of justice. Without adequate medical, psychological or legal support to help in their healing, several survivors of acid abuse are falling through the cracks of the justice system. Now, instead of waiting to navigate this system, many are focusing on recovering on their own terms. What's more, they are pro-actively creating solutions for other survivors.

The healing process

Pragya Singh, a mother and social entrepreneur, counsels children and women who have survived acid abuse to build their confidence, and links them with resources that can aid their recovery. "My aim is to give them a platform to explore opportunities," she says.

It's going to be 11 years since I was attacked. How long will I wait? I have to support my family, I have to work.

After being attacked in 2006, Singh founded the Atijeevan Foundation to offer counselling sessions, medical services and wellness training to other survivors. It's important, she explains, to recognize that survivors are regular people who want to recover, heal and participate in society.

Reintegrating survivors is a complex and complicated process. Yet, many like Singh have stepped up to provide support options that didn't previously exist. While the State has taken some measures to provide free treatment and compensation, a number of survivors are still unable to access adequate assistance, avail of new medical procedures or find employment.

And the gap between what they are demanding, and what is offered, is growing.

Monica Singh, an international activist pursuing a career in fashion in New York, recalls the long struggle to get back on her feet. "It's going to be 11 years since I was attacked. How long will I wait? I have to support my family, I have to work." A positive attitude and willingness to embrace normalcy is hard for victims but necessary in the healing process, she reiterates. "I don't want to be just a survivor. I am doing my level best not to be recognized as a survivor." [Read Monica Singh's account of her experience here.]

I don't want to be just a survivor. I am doing my level best not to be recognized as a survivor.

Last year, the Delhi government made an attempt to break barriers by employing six acid attack victims. But other states have shown little progress.

Towards normalcy

Acid violence is commonly misunderstood as a South Asian issue. But several countries -- Columbia, the United Kingdom, Bangladesh, Canada, the United States, France and Belgium -- are trying to address acid violence.

Yet, without strong systems in place, survivors across the world are often left to recover on their own. Lalita Benbansi, Reshma Quereshi and Aarti Takur are among many young women who have spoken openly about their struggles and their stories echo the real fears that survivors grapple with every day.

Even a glance at the backlog of criminal cases related to acid violence in Indian courts is revealing; some cases take nearly 10 years to close. "Fighting to survive is a hard enough battle," Monica says, "Now imagine also thinking about selling property, funds for surgeries, paying hospital bills. It's not just a physical attack on a person, it has a lot of mental impact as well." Through her organization, the Mahendra Singh Foundation, she now helps other victims of acid abuse find medical assistance and counselling support.

People need more than just medical services, they need companionship, friendship.

National campaigns and organizations such as Stop Acid Attacks, Chhanv and Make Love Not Scars, which have been tirelessly advocating to curb the sale of acid, are now strategizing to help survivors in other ways. Alok Dixit, who leads Stop Acid Attacks, says that a number of survivors want to focus on their future and move on. Stop Acid Attacks' Sheroes cafe in Agra, is a shining reflection of this hope.

Make Love Not Scars recently opened a rehabilitation clinic in New Delhi that offers yoga, life skills classes and counselling support. Across the country, social innovators are stepping up to fill in gaps as well.

Kalpana Chowdhary, the Founder of Janseva Foundation, who is working on launching a matrimonial-cum-networking app, Lagnn, for acid survivors, is ecstatic about the possibility of companionship and marital bliss for those who are recovering. "People need more than just medical services, they need companionship, friendship," she says. The app, which is scheduled to launch in the coming months, is a big step forward in helping survivors find partners they can share their lives with.

This isn't all. The demand for modern technologies such as 3D skin printing, laser surgery and skin regeneration is rising. This year Karnataka finally opened the first skin bank in the state. As public awareness grows, survivors are actively exploring options for their own recovery.

Yet, the question looms large: what can be done to help survivors lead their lives as normal citizens?

There are a lot of good people in the world. We should give them a chance to live a normal life.

The answer lies in integrating preventive and post-attack measures. The Violence Prevention Alliance (VPA) recommends looking at the complete cycle of how interpersonal violence affects an individual. A first step forward would be for the government to work with the civic sector to consider all the factors that affect survivors of acid violence when developing solutions. The second step would be to focus on creating spaces that help them access timely legal and medical support.

As a country, we cannot afford to ignore the scourge of acid attacks any longer. Most importantly, we cannot be apathetic to the needs of survivors. In Alok Dixit's words, "For love, we have to involve them in society. There are a lot of good people in the world. We should give them a chance to live a normal life."

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