Acid attacks in India are a sad reality. Most of these attacks are on women. Even though most acid attacks are reported in Bangladesh; unlike our neighbors, India’s incidence rate of chemical assault has been increasing over the past decade. According the Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI), 349 people, mostly women, had acid thrown on them in deliberate assaults last year. The number is three times higher than what was reported in 2013 and more than four times higher than in 2010. According to the NGO, less than half of these attacks come to light.
Most of these attacks are due to rejection of marriage, refusal by women on sexual advances, or dowry disagreements. Land, property, and business disputes account for another 20% of these assaults. Many of them get seriously injured; some die. Most chemical assault survivors do not come out in the public, and lead a quiet confined life in the dark. Some find it hard to stand the humiliation and commit suicide.
This is the story of one such acid attack victim, who stood up for her identity, and fought back.
In 2008, Rupa’s step mother poured acid on her face while she was sleeping in her house in a village near Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. Rupa was only 15 years old. The acid did not just burn her skin and her physical self; the unimaginable pain and trauma the acid carried along with itself seeped into her dreams, her childlike spirit, and her belief in a better future.
Rupa didn’t have a family to look forward to. She started staying with her uncle who came to her rescue at the right time. Confined within the walls of her new home, she stopped going out, and refrained from all forms of interactions. Her uncle bore the cost of her treatment and surgery, but with a disfigured face, her state of depression continued.
It was around this time when she first heard about the ‘Stop Acid Attack Campaign.’ Driven by a new-found curiosity, she participated in it. She met victims like herself and received rigorous counselling and training. She was told that she too can live a normal life, that she is a fighter and not a victim. With new found confidence, her life gradually changed. The seeds for a new and fierce Rupa were sown.
The famous British writer Virginia Woolf, in her celebrated essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), writes that a woman who wants to accomplish a better life, should have her own space for solitude and financial freedom. It is this idea of finding a room for herself in this cruel and judgmental society that drove Rupa to learn needlework and sewing. She soon realised that she is a naturally talented designer. Her friends at ‘Stop Acid Attack’ stood by her and supported her during this phase of self-exploration and discovery.
Soon Rupa had a good number of her own designs to display to the rest of the world. Her designs underwent professional photoshoots and were well received by people. Her dreams took flight and soon she launched her own fashion brand ‘Rupa Creations,’ which became instantly popular.
Presently, Rupa runs her boutique at the Sheroes Hangout, a café near the Taj Mahal, Agra, which is run by Rupa and four other girls who have all survived acid attacks. Instead of succumbing to victimhood and staying in hiding, these women have decided to lead a normal respectable life and have a career of their own. The clothes worn by these women who run the café are all designed by Rupa. Rupa is loved and respected here. When asked about what is the next step in her phenomenal journey, Rupa smiles and says,
“I want to start an online portal through which my designs can be sold. To help start the online business, my friends at ‘Stop Acid Attack’ have raised some money. I also make about 20,000 rupees every month through Sheroes Hangout, and have made some savings.”
But her dreams don’t end here. She has elaborate plans for the future. Rupa tells us,
“Eventually, I want to start a skill development school for women and train many more girls to become financially self-dependent. This will not only help them earn greater respect in the society, it will also help them gain self-confidence.”
When asked to give a message to other young women, Rupa, now 22, recalls her dark days and asks every woman to fight for her rights and self-respect. No sorrow is too hard to overcome, she says with a smile, as her eyes twinkle.
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