Millennium Post

Beauty within

Many of them have come out of the closet and are raring to make a mark in the world. These fighters are doing it all to shine – protest marches, fashion shows, documentaries, café and the
latest being a calendar launch.

Ritu Saini, 20, was attacked with the lethal chemical near her house in Rohtak in May 2012. Saini, who is left with a disfigured face and one eye – that too with partial vision – brims with hope and is full of life and laughter. After the attack, she dropped out of school and quit the state-level volleyball team due to vision and other health issues. But these physical barriers were unable to break her or deter her spirit. Saini is one of the most important members of Sheroes Hangout, a café in Agra. She welcomes guests with warmth. Besides, she recently modeled for a calendar shoot.

Saini says she tried to play volleyball again but couldn’t pursue it due to poor vision. “After the attack, I had lost interest in life itself. But then I challenged myself. My aunt had hired goons to settle a family dispute. I no longer have the face I was born with, but they have failed to break my spirit. I enjoy every moment the way I used to before the attack.”  Photographer Rahul Saharan who captured these ‘scarred beauties’ on his lens for the calendar says he enjoyed shooting Saini the most.

The calendar, Bello, strikes the right chord. It features 12 fighters in the professions they wanted to pursue before the attack marred their faces. The unique calendar, released this Women’s Day, redefines beauty. The calendar starts from March 2015 and ends in February 2016.

Rupa, a survivor who wants to become a fashion designer, has designed the apparels for all the women featuring on the calendar. Rajwant Kaur, a fighter from Ludhiana, is shown as a photojournalist, something she aspired to become, while Dolly is depicted as a doctor and Gita as chef. Apart from Saharan, photographers Surabhi Jaiswal and Passcal Mannaerts of Belgium
captured these ‘scarred beauties’ on their lenses. “The fighters are immensely confident and talented. They want to do their best to achieve their goals. It was both fun and a learning experience for me to capture them on camera,” said Saharan.

With this calendar, Chhanv Foundation, working for the rehabilitation of acid attack survivors, wants to reach out to 100 million people around the world. “Because of the gruesome attack and scars, most survivors have lost confidence. They feel that it is impossible to lead a dignified life. With this calendar, we want to make a difference and challenge the mindset of the society. We want to bring back and boost the confidence of these women,” said Ashish Shukla, director, Chhanv. Shukla says that the amount collected from the sale of the calendar will be used for the rehabilitation of these survivors. “We have launched it as a fund-raising campaign. People can log on to, select Bello-Women’s Day calendar and donate,” he added. The calendar starts with survivors in a happy mood and celebrating. April features Laxmi as a role model for survivors. Laxmi – face of Stop Acid Attacks campaign and director of Chhanv Foundation – was attacked by a spurned suitor and a woman in the posh Khan Market area of Delhi nine years ago.

Laxmi, 24, was only 15 years old at that time. Laxmi has also been awarded the International Woman of Courage Award by US First Lady Michelle Obama. Besides, she worked as an anchor with a TV news channel.

“When you talk to people about beauty, a whopping majority would say that it is the inner beauty that matters. However, most of these people won’t hesitate for a second in favouring someone who has not suffered the attack to a girl who is left with a disfigured face. In a society as insensitive as ours, it doesn’t take much for such women lose their self-confidence. The calendar is a small step to encourage these women and boost their morale,” said another campaigner.

Sapna, another fighter, says her father lost his job after she was attacked in 2013. Relatives too distanced themselves from the family. “No one hired me or my father after the attack, rather people would stare at us and indulge in whispers. We are normal. Treat us like human beings,” says Sapna, who wants to become a beautician.

In October last year, four acid attack survivors – Nitu, Rupa, Ritu and Gita – with the help of Chhanv, started ‘Sheroes Hangout’, a café named in Agra, which is known for the Taj Mahal,
panchhi petha and leather items. Sheroes, which derives its name from ‘hero’, is located near the Taj Mahal. It located at the Fatehabad Road opposite to the Taj Mahal gateway. This is the first of its kind initiative in the country.

It is warmth that brews in this two-storey cafeteria, which also houses a reading section. The reading section consists of books on women empowerment and their stories of courage. Besides, the creations of Rupa, an evolving fashion designer, are also put on display in the café. The place hosts discussions on regulating the sale of acid in market and women issues.

The café has been set up with an initial investment of Rs 3 lakh. The fund was raised out of donation. Cartoonist Asim Trivedi, hair stylist Sapna Bhavnani and singer Sona Mohapatra are among some eminent personalities who have lent their support to this initiative.  “We don’t want to continue with this donation system for long. We are trying to open cafes and boutiques to employ and rehabilitate the survivors,” said Shukla, adding that they plan to open similar outlets in Delhi, Kanpur and other parts of country.

Nitu, her mother and sister were attacked by her father in 1992 while asleep. Nitu, now 22, was only three years old at that time. Her sister died in the incident. Nitu is left with a disfigured face and manages with partial vision. “A lot of people would laugh or stare at us… think that we are worthless. This initiative has made me stronger. Many people know about Sheroes Hangout. But we will work harder to make it a success.”

These fighters plan to launch more employment and rehabilitation-oriented initiatives. Shukla says they are planning to open a boutique for Rupa who was attacked by her step-mother a few years ago. Rupa displayed her creations before fashion designer Manish Malhotra when he had come to the national Capital with the actors of film Haider in September last year. The latest government report states that 309 cases of acid attack were reported in 2014. “We have dealt with more than 200 cases. Most of them are girls aged between 15 and 22 years,” says Dixit.

He says in most cases, the main motive behind such attacks is a one-sided affair. Failed relationships and family problems also cause such attacks. Though women make up the bulk of survivors, men, too, are increasingly being attacked.

In July 2013, the Supreme Court passed a law, banning over-the-counter sale of the lethal yellow chemical unless the seller maintains a logbook, containing the name and address of the buyer and the quantity of acid s/he has purchased. But it is evident that the Apex Court’s directive is openly being flouted. The court had also directed state governments to pay Rs 3 lakh to acid attack survivors.

However, survivors and the families claim that getting aid is a time-taking process and they have to sell off everything to meet the medical expenses. The government too has directed all states to ensure speedy release of the compensation as well as timely treatment of victims. According to Section 357 C, all hospitals – government or private – must provide medical treatment to acid victims immediately, free of cost.

With the rising number of such cases, the government is planning to list acid attacks under heinous crimes and fix a time-frame for investigation and trial.
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