With the release of Deepika Padukone’s new movie Chhapaak, acid attack survivors are more visible than ever before. But what is fueling the rise of this unspeakable crime all over the globe? Vogue Arabia talks to survivors about finding light at the end of the tunnel by not just surviving, but thriving.
Splash. It’s a sound to associate with joy – the squelch of a toddler’s boots in a puddle, the slap of an oar on the open ocean, the bubble and trickle of cool water over ice on a warm day. But for thousands of people – mostly women – each year, there comes a splash that marks a new direction in their life. The splash of acid on skin.
“Acid violence is a premeditated act designed to disfigure, maim and blind, but not to kill,” says Jaf Shah, Executive Director of Acid Survivors Trust International [ASTI]. “Often the perpetrators’ intention is for the survivor to live with her facial disfigurement in social isolation. This is particularly pronounced in societies where female beauty is highly prized and commoditized, yet where female independence is challenged, often with violence.”
Deepika Padukone’s movie Chhapaak – which translates to English as ‘splash’ – is based on the life of Indian acid attack survivor and activist Laxmi Agarwal as she goes through a grueling recovery and learns to live with her wounds. Agarwal was attacked with acid in 2006 after refusing a marriage proposal, a story that is eerily familiar to many survivors not just in India, but all over the world too.
Laxmi Agarwal’s story doesn’t end with her recovery – she continues to campaign today. Her petitions have resulted in legislation to regulate the sale of acid and enable easier prosecution of the perpetrators of this hideous crime. But enforcement is patchy and the number of attacks taking place in India remains the highest in the world, around 1,000 each year, despite official numbers being much lower.
“Laxmi is a pioneer – someone who has managed to make enough waves that feature films are being made out of her life,” says Lela Edgar, a photographer who has worked with survivors, and met Agarwal herself in Delhi. “What she has done is quite a feat. I hope that Laxmi’s story will increase not only awareness but action on behalf of acid attack survivors.”
And action is the most important thing to many survivors – their burns heal and they can learn to live with their scars, but what can really hurt is seeing no change in access to acid or penalties for carrying out these horrific attacks.
There are success stories – when attacks in Bangladesh peaked at 400 per year in 2002, the Bangladeshi government acted to combat acid violence by introducing legislation to control the sale, use and storage of acid. Today around 100 attacks take place each year. However, there are other acid ‘hot spots’ where there is still much to be done.
“Acid survivors, especially here in Uganda, have suffered a lot,” says Linneti Kirungi, a 28-year-old survivor and activist from Kampala. “I was attacked in 2012 after denying my ex-boyfriend’s proposal of getting married while I was still studying, so he decided to attack me with acid and my life completely changed. I spent one year in hospital – being bedridden wasn’t easy for me or my family. They had to sell many things to pay for my medical bills and surgery. The perpetrator was arrested for just one week and then was out. But me? I had to undergo all the pain, and I have seen many other survivors suffering the same. Some are completely disfigured, beyond recognition. Some can no longer see. But most of them have not yet received justice.
“In Uganda acid violence is happening day and night. Every day you hear of people being attacked, but we have not seen the government coming out [to support us] or anything being put in place. People are dying and these cases are increasing all the time. Most of the lawmakers and policymakers are not involved with acid attack survivors. They haven’t heard their views to clearly understand what problems these people go through. But you can’t come up with a law before you even consult those people who are being affected.”
Another Ugandan survivor, 29-year-old mother of three Hawah Namakulah, also believes that the key to halting the increase of acid attacks lies with the government.
“It’s because they haven’t put a limit on that chemical – it’s sold everywhere and people know it’s dangerous so they use that opportunity to destroy people’s lives. I cry sometimes and ask why are people so heartless. Because when acid is poured on your skin, really, you may think it’s the end of it all. I did. And still I feel pain because someone took away all I had and destroyed my happiness in life,” says Hawah.
Some countries have seen pioneers like Agarwal take strides toward justice for survivors, such as Natalia Ponce de León in Colombia. Attacked with a liter of acid in 2014 by a neighbor whose romantic advances she had refused, she successfully campaigned to define acid attacks as a specific crime with an increased maximum jail sentence of 50 years and buoy up state medical care for survivors.
And in the UK, following an acid attack perpetrated by her ex-boyfriend in 2008, Katie Piper gave up her right to anonymity to raise awareness about burn victims. Supporting fellow survivors through her charity The Katie Piper Foundation, over the past 10 years Katie has become such a recognizable face in the UK media that she now has advertising partnerships with hair and beauty companies Pantene and L’Oréal.
“It feels like a genuine positive step within the beauty industry to normalize ‘facial disfigurement’, although I prefer the phrase physical difference,” says Katie. “I’m happy that in 2020 we are considering beauty from a different perspective than previous rigid beauty standards. Acid attacks wrongly can carry shame for victims. Giving a platform to survivors empowers them and real change can start to happen.
“Chhapaak is such an important film that has the potential to change lives. Awareness and education are key, the victim must not hide away or live in fear. Basic human rights such as a legal trial and medical support are of course essential, but it’s the offenders that need to be educated to avoid people becoming victims in the first place,” concludes Katie.
However, that’s easier said than done. There are approximately 1,500 reported acid attacks globally each year, but it’s believed that around 60% of attacks go unreported, so the true number is much higher. Women make up 80% of those attacked with acid, a clear demonstration that this phenomenon is rooted in the inequality of women in society.
“Often survivors are held responsible for the acid attack, for what happened to them,” says Ann-Christine Woehrl, a French-German photographer whose project IN/VISIBLE chronicles the lives of survivors all over the world. “Shame and stigma is enhanced by that assumption. It is easier for society not to acknowledge those who are different, to ignore them and to make them invisible. It is not only visible scars that survivors of acid attacks suffer from for their whole life. It is other people’s reactions to their disfigurements, which push them to the edge of society and deepen their outer scars within their inner self. I aimed to make them visible, capturing the beauty and self-confidence hidden behind the disfiguring scars. I wanted to portray them as heroes and survivors, not as tragic victims, and show their strength, their resilience and their courage.”
When it comes to the fortitude of these survivors, fellow photographer Lela Edgar is in complete agreement: “I found myself drawn to the resilience of the women who had to wear the evidence of their attacker on their face and body. The strength of these women blew my mind, as of course did the reality that this was happening to anyone, anywhere. It was quite a shock.”
But as Kirungi explains, for many women affected by acid violence, they have no choice but to carry on.
“Many of the victims are young mothers,” says Kirungi. “You have to find ways of looking after your family – once you are burned you also become the breadwinner. Some are blind and can’t do anything on their own, some go out on the street to beg for a living and some commit suicide because they can’t take it anymore. They are trying to survive but their children are also suffering.
“This is why we are asking the government to intervene. We try to empower the survivors and we want to put in place a rehabilitation center where they can access the psychological and medical services that they need, as well as the vocational training that will allow them to become self-reliant – that is the most important thing,” concludes Kirungi. “We have seen other countries like India come up with projects such as the café for acid survivors. This has really helped reduce the stigma and negative attitudes. Many people think that once you’re burned with acid your life has to end there. But when they see you doing something, it shows that disability is not inability.”
If survivors can continue to step out of the shadows, like Agarwal, Kirungi and other acid violence activists the world over, they will continue to make splashes all their own – on their own terms.
HELP, AND GET HELP
India: Meer Foundation
Colombia: Fundación Natalia Ponce de León
When dealing with the immediate aftermath of an acid attack, once the emergency services have been called there are two important steps: remove and rinse.
REMOVE – remove as much of the chemical and contaminated clothing as possible.
Be careful not to touch or spread the chemical
Use gloves to protect hands
Cut away clothing instead of removing over the head and/or over undamaged skin
Do not wipe the skin – it could spread the chemical
If the chemical is dry, brush it off
RINSE – continuously with clean water
Begin rinsing with clean water as soon as possible
Make sure water can run off without pooling and spreading to other parts of the skin
Only use water – do not rub or wipe
If emergency services are available, stay on the phone until they arrive and follow instructions