No longer victims but fighter with a cause

When Mr Alok Dixit fell in love with a woman who survived an acid attack, he not only brought joy back into her life but also brightened the lives of other survivors brooding over their plight in homes-turned-prisons.

Mr Dixit, a former journalist, was writing an article on acid attacks when he met Ms Laxmi (who goes by only one name) two years ago. At the time, she was fighting a campaign in the Indian capital to convince the government to curb the sale of acid.

It was easily available in grocery stores for just 30 rupees (67 Singapore cents) a litre, making a horrific crime easy to commit. In 2013, the Supreme Court told the government to ban the sale of acid without the possession of a special licence.

Struck first by her courage, Mr Dixit, 26, found himself falling in love with Ms Laxmi, now 24.

She says she was wary at first. "I remember a family friend once saying something cruel to me. She said no matter how many cosmetic surgery operations I had, I should never hope for love," she said.

Mr Dixit knew his relationship would anger his conservative Hindu parents, who had already begun searching for a suitable bride for him.

The couple began living together. Their small flat doubled up as a campaign centre for Stop Acid Attacks, a group Mr Dixit set up soon after meeting Ms Laxmi and the only one of its kind in India.

Funded by donations, it works to bring survivors out of hiding, help them experience some normality by finding them jobs and fight for free medical treatment.

Although there are no official statistics, campaigners estimate that around 1,000 women are attacked in India every year.

Typically, the culprit is a man who takes revenge when a woman he is attracted to rejects him. Ms Laxmi, a small-built woman, was 15 and waiting for a bus in 2005 at a popular shopping area when a man she had spurned walked up to her from behind and tapped her shoulder. When she turned around, he threw acid on her. Since then, she has undergone a dozen operations on her scarred face.

"Starting the campaign to regulate the sale of acid gave me a new purpose in life," she said. "Before, I spent years inside the house, not going out because people used to stare and make me miserable."

Mr Dixit, a calm, bearded man, said: "I fell in love with her because of her bravery. I love people like her who are so alive and want to change the world and not just live their own life. She fought for justice despite her own ordeal."

Through her, he began to understand a survivor's need for a normal life - getting up, going to work, bantering with colleagues, taking home a salary.

"They needed to break out of their confinement. Each one was alone and isolated," he said. "They needed to be connected with others who could help."

One of the first visitors at the Stop Acid Attacks office was Ms Rupa Saa, 22, who kept her face covered even at home. After her stepmother threw acid at her, her father took his wife's side and abandoned his daughter.

Ms Saa said: "My life changed the day I saw Laxmi. She didn't cover her face like me. I was stunned. I didn't think it was possible. I realised I wasn't alone. There were people in the world who could understand me."

Teenager Ritu Saini, 19, who lost an eye and suffered severe burns, has also thrown away the long scarf she used to wrap around her face.

"I used to think obsessively, day and night, about why I had to suffer so much, why it happened to me. Being with the other girls has taken me out of myself," she said.

Last December, Mr Dixit went a step further. His charity opened a cafe in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, run by five acid attack survivors. A colourfully painted and simply furnished cafe, Sheroes Hangout provides the women with more than a job; it has given them a happier life.

Ms Geeta Mahor, 40, manages the kitchen. Her tragedy happened 12 years ago as she slept alongside her two young daughters.

Enraged that she had not given him a son, her husband poured acid on all three of them. Her 18-month-old baby girl died. The elder girl, Neetu, survived and, now 17, also works at the cafe, looking after the library.

Ms Saini looks after the accounts. Ms Saa has been trained to design and make clothes which she sells in a corner of the cafe.

"People tend to see survivors as victims, as finished, with no hope. But we realised that they have dreams, that they want to be like everyone else and be in society," said Stop Acid Attacks coordinator Hardika Sharma.

The women pop in and out of the cafe, along a busy main road, without any of the painful self-consciousness they used to have.

Serving coffee and sandwiches to a group of British tourists, Ms Saini is relaxed and smiling. She needs an artificial eye to replace the one lost when a cousin paid two men to throw acid on her over a family property dispute. But she does not have the money for it.

After recovering from her injuries, she made a decision. "I decided not to let the men who ruined my face also take away my ability to live like a normal human being," she said.

But no one was prepared to give her a job until she got in touch with Mr Dixit and Ms Laxmi and moved to Agra to work at the cafe.

Ms Laxmi travelled to the United States last March to receive the US State Department's International Women of Courage award from First Lady Michelle Obama for her campaign to regulate the sale of acid. Another survivor, Ms Monica Singh, is in New York pursuing her passion for fashion design.

Mr Dixit said: "We have women working in administration in the Indian Air Force, a woman working as a scientist. They are not prepared to suffer social death because of what's happened to them."

He feels the cafe is a good option as many survivors have little education. Making coffee and meals and serving customers are skills they can acquire relatively easily.

The cafe will also be used as a training centre for other survivors who can then go back to their home towns to open their own.

"Pushing them out of the house to work is the best thing we can do for them. I'm hoping we can open another 20 cafes," Mr Dixit said.

Meanwhile, his mother has become reconciled with his life with Ms Laxmi. His father still refuses to speak to him.

"It will take time," he said. "But by and by I am sure my father will come round too and come to like Laxmi."

This article was first published on Mar 1, 2015.
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