Uttar Pradesh, INDIA – As a child, Ritu Saini, 25, always left her homework halfway so that she could make things out of paper and cardboard.
Her early memories are of activities like cutting, designing, and decorating toys and houses.
“I know what it feels like to use my hands and mind on a pile of materials with smell, colour and texture,” says Saini, an acid attack survivor from Rohtak, a city in the northern Indian state of Haryana, as she decorates a candle with glitter.
She is a core member of the non-profit Chhanv Foundation, which offers support to acid attack survivors. The collective forged an innovative solution, called ‘A Gift Story’, to empower victims with skills and resources to earn sustainable livelihoods. The venture is an e-commerce portal where a wide range of gifted accessories, bearing survivors’ personal stories, are crafted and sold by the survivors.
The initiative was founded on the premise that the gifting industry would be successful during the pandemic-induced lockdown.
“When people could not visit each other, sending their emotions for remembrance, endurance and care through gifts was highly valued,” says Anamika Dubey, associate project manager of the initiative.
A Gift Story also equips survivors in other crafts such as cooking, painting, and making sculptures, candles, diyas, cookies, diaries and chocolates.
“Every product that survivors make is curated with their personal message and their own story to boost their confidence so that they also feel respected,” Dubey says.
Chhanv has also started a helpline service in order to reach out to survivors who can work remotely or need other kinds of assistance from the foundation.
Before the pandemic, Saini was working at Sheroes Hangout, a first-of-its-kind cafe in India run and managed by acid attack survivors.
Now Saini and others, in view of a declining economy and shrinking employment opportunities, are working hard to rebuild their skills and take as many orders as possible. They are also crowdfunding and reaching out to donors to rebuild and resume the cafes.
“We have been excluded all along due to our face and it hurts no more. But the pandemic made it worse,” says a reflective and full-of-life Saini.
At Chhanv, she says, “we were taught to look at ourselves with dignity and be confident of our new identity.”
Saini is one among 1,200 odd survivors of acid attacks in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau or NCRB.
On May 26, 2012, at the age of 17, she was attacked by her maternal cousin who wanted to marry her, but she refused. He then hired two men to throw acid on her face. She has undergone fifteen surgeries and there are more to come. Her attacker was imprisoned for a few years and later released on bail.
Saini was also cast alongside Deepika Padukone and Vikrant Massey in the Bollywood film Chhapaak, based on the struggles of acid attack survivors in India.
Ashish Shukla, Co-Founder of Sheroes Hangout Cafe, says that around 70 percent of their revenue generation comes from two cafes based in Agra and Lucknow.
“The uncertainty of the pandemic pushed us to look for alternative rehabilitation programs for the survivors and train them with the new skills,” he says. “They had already suffered a lot in their lives and we didn’t want to further intensify their economic trauma.”
Nagma, 22, says she was anxious about how she would face the world after her cousin threw acid on her inside her home in Balrampur, Uttar Pradesh.
At the time of the attack, he told her: “Don’t take pride in your beauty. Now, I’ll see who will marry you.”
Nagma was barely 17.
“I had no expectations from anyone,” she says, while having to face anxiety and restlessness during the pandemic at home.
But that was not the only challenge.
Her aunt, who is also the mother of her attacker, would pass by her everyday and would remind her of the incident.
“To leave my home was the only option that I found would somehow lessen my pain,” Nagma says.
She recently joined Chhanv. At present, she is receiving her orientation training so that she can also be a part of A Gift Story.
Most survivors are attacked by relatives, making it common that the crime is not reported outside the family, says Alok Dixit, a social activist and a founding member of the Chhanv Foundation.
“During the lockdown they had nowhere to go. We also faced a lot of problems in our outreach programs,” he says.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of India offered legal remedy to acid attack survivors in the landmark Laxmi Agarwal vs. Union of India case. Agarwal is the face of the acid survivors’ movement in the country, and filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that insisted on banning the sale of acid.
Acid attacks were declared a heinous crime through the introduction of separate sections in the Indian Penal Code – 326 (A) and 326 (B). The offence is non-bailable with a minimum of ten years to life in prison.
During the lockdown, acid attack survivors needed immediate help for their treatment and financial assistance, says Shalini Mittal, an assistant professor at Amity University.
“The entire focus was on migrants and unfortunately these survivors were excluded,” she says.
Mittal’s academic work explores mechanisms underlying psychological rehabilitation of acid attack survivors in India.
“When I see people here (at the foundation) who have suffered like me, I feel a sense of belonging,” Nagma says. “I don’t feel like an ‘other’ and it makes me so happy.”
Nagma has undergone six surgeries, and more treatment is on cards as she faces trouble breathing.
Mittal says that the ongoing situation of uncertainty makes it more difficult for acid survivors who have already experienced trauma and victimisation.
“Survivors who are still rehabilitated even in smaller ways find meaning and purpose to carry on with their lives,” she says. “But the ones who lack such kind of support suffer silently. They don’t have coping strength because of their already fragile psychological state.”
According to the National Commission for Women, out of 1,273 cases of acid attacks across the country, 799 cases have not been paid any compensation.
The laws and schemes that support survivors in cases of attacks, such as the NALSA’s Compensation Scheme for Women Victims/Survivors of Sexual Assault/other Crimes, provides compensation ranging from 3 to 8 lakh rupees ($4,100-11,000) depending on the severity of the case.
The cases of acid attacks registered on the National Commission for Women website’s Management Information System (MIS) reveals a delay in filing chargesheets for acid survivors. Furthermore, the number of cases updated till October 20 last year do not match with the number of cases reported across the country.
“The attacker didn’t try to ruin my life alone,” Saini says. “Every member of my family went through pain and helplessness.”
In 2018, the Indian government announced a reserved quota in jobs for acid attack survivors, people with autism, mental illnesses, and intellectual disability under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016.
However, there are no policies and schemes for rehabilitation of acid attack survivors or that provide them with skills for sustainable livelihood.
An official at the Department of Women and Child Development, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that they continue to receive numerous requests for skill rehabilitation from survivors hoping to earn a livelihood.
“Most of the survivors have low literacy and computer knowledge. It is very difficult to say how much they would be able to benefit from the three percent reserved quota as per the disability act,” the official says.
Government institutions are thus limited within the larger policy framework, the official says.
“Victim blaming culture is pervasive in our society. These survivors mostly struggle with lack of hope, giving a compounded effect on their psychological state of mind,” says Mittal.
The majority of them already suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, while the present situation has made it worse for the ones who are not rehabilitated, she says.
“My attacker wanted to not only kill me but my dreams as well,” says Saini.
“But I will endure and so will my dreams.”
Originally appeared in TRT