Laxmi Agarwal was 16 years old. Due to begin music lessons that day, she was walking to her new job at a bookshop in Delhi when she encountered them: a man twice her age whose romantic advances she had rejected coming toward her, with two other men. They threw acid in her face.
Severely burned, she endured seven reconstructive surgeries. Along with the physical pain, she endured verbal attacks from people who blamed her for what the men did to her, and even disparaged her family. Through it all, Agarwal didn’t touch her face or look in the mirror. She considered suicide.
Then she began to realize that the people saying such things were just wrong. “A crime has happened to me,” she said at the time. “I didn’t commit the crime. So why should I sit quietly?”
Laxmi Agarwal began to fight back, for herself, for other women who have been similarly attacked, for the women who would be wounded or killed in the future if things didn’t change.
She filed a police report against her attackers, and after a four-year process, they were sentenced to 7-10 years in prison.
When she was 24, Agarwal appeared in public without the scarf she had worn to hide her face, and becoming director of the Chhanv Foundation, which seeks to help survivors of acid attacks.
Agarwal led the foundation in assisting survivors with treatment, legal aid, and rehabilitation, and she made many more people aware of the issue by giving talks around the country and the world.
Agarwal also lobbied lawmakers to restrict the sale of acid. The government did not act quickly, nor did it seem to appreciate the gravity of the issue. Nonetheless, in 2013, the Supreme Court of India did in fact create restrictions on the sale of acid—namely, acid couldn’t be sold to anyone younger than 18, and anyone purchasing acid had to provide a photo ID.
Between the governmental action and Agarwal’s efforts, people learned that Bangladesh, India, and Cambodia have the highest incidences of acid attacks in the world and that, according to research, 88 percent of the perpetrators are men and 72 percent of the victims are women.
Agarwal’s personal alliance with the man who founded Stop Acid Attacks ended in a daughter, a separation, and his absconding with the foundation’s funds. As she has searched for work and housing, the prejudice against women who have been scarred has continued. Business owners and landlords don’t want her scaring customers and fellow tenants.
“The attacker is attacking you once,” says Agarwal, “but society attacks you every time, in every moment.”
Today, Laxmi Agarwal has a diploma in Vocational Training from the National Institute of Open Schooling, as she struggles to support herself and her daughter.
“I will survive to tell my story so that no one else faces a similar situation or contemplates suicide when they face rejection by the community.”
A movie is being made about her life, and that promises to bring more people into opposition to acid attacks on women, the goal of Laxmi Agarwal’s brave stand against cultural acceptance of this violence.