Laxmi was 16 when someone threw acid on her face while she waited at a bus stop in New Delhi, India. Her attacker was a 32-year-old man, Naim Khan, who acted after Laxmi turned down his repeated, unwanted advances. The Indian authorities caught, tried, and convicted Mr. Khan. Today, he is in prison serving a 10-year sentence. But Laxmi was left disfigured, and she will always bear the mark that her attacker etched on her with a bottle of store-bought acid.
I had heard of acid attacks in India and other countries, but what surprised me was that at the time I started my assignment in New Delhi, anyone could go into a local store and buy a liter of acid for the same price as a pack of chewing gum. Violence against women is a universal scourge, but where acid is so easily available it has horrific consequences. It attacks the core of a victim’s identity, and destroys his or her most public projection. With their faces destroyed, those acid attack victims that survive often remain sheltered behind closed doors, fearful of the shock and disgust that often greet them.
Here is why Laxmi is so remarkable. After facing a trauma that would have stopped anyone’s life in their tracks, she went and did something about it. Despite her injuries, and the stares, and the pain she suffers to this day, Laxmi went out there and spoke on TV, she campaigned, and at one point she even walked right up to the Minister of Home Affairs and gave him a petition that she had started — it had 27,000 signatures. Laxmi kept going; even while she was scraping to get by; while she was repeatedly denied jobs because “people would get scared” if they saw her; while she returned to the hospital for more painful operations; while her father passed away. She kept going.
With the help of a dedicated attorney, she took her case to the Indian Supreme Court. The Court agreed with her, and asked that a Law Commission provide recommendations. Prompted by the Commission’s findings, the Indian Parliament passed a law in March 2013 that treats acid attacks as a separate crime subject to stiff penalties. Then in July 2013, the Supreme Court issued an order to stop the open sale of acid and to require regulations that limit and track acid sales. Six years after Laxmi started her campaign, you can no longer just walk in to a corner store and buy acid over the counter.
Laxmi’s indomitable spirit, her resolve, and her determination are astounding. She is an inspiration to anyone who has suffered adversity, and particularly to the many other victims of acid attacks who may no longer feel the need to suffer in isolation. Congratulations to Laxmi for your International Women of Courage Award. It is well deserved.
About the Author: Aaron Garfield serves as a Political Officer at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India.
- Cross posted from DipNote, the official blog of the U.S. Department of State