Laxmi Agarwal   

By Geeta Wahab
Name Laxmi Agarwal
Occupation Acid attack survivor, activist and TV host
Category Crusader
Country of Residence India

Why we felt she needed to be included in this list: Laxmi Agarwal survived a brutal acid attack that ended up shaping her life’s mission: to support acid attack survivors and help them find jobs and lead independent and dignified lives. She launched a campaign to support victims of acid attacks and received the 2014 International Women of Courage Award from the US former First Lady Michelle Obama. Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone will be playing her in an upcoming biopic directed by Meghna Gulzar. 

Laxmi Agarwal’s life changed twice at the age of 15 — first when she was attacked with acid by a man who couldn’t handle her rejection and then again, when her soul was sparked to fight for the rights of acid attack survivors. 

On April 22, 2005 when she was just a schoolgirl with dreams of becoming a singer or a dancer, Agarwal was browsing in a New Delhi bookshop when she noticed one of her friend’s brothers, 32-year-old Naeem Khan, nearby. She had known him for years, but recently he had begun stalking her, texting her, and even badgering her to marry him. Outside of the bookstore, she tried to ignore him and walk in another direction but the woman he was with pushed her to the ground and all of a sudden Agarwal felt cold, burning liquid splash across her face.

Agarwal’s face and a portion of her body was disfigured in the attack. She spent two months in the hospital and had two major skin-grafting surgeries. When she returned home she was too ashamed to show her face so she dropped out of school, didn’t leave the house and kept her head covered with a scarf. Neighbours visited and, as though she wasn’t there, would tell her parents things like, “It would have been better if she’d been killed.” Her family though, built up her strength and promised her that in time, she would be able to do things that she didn’t think were possible.

A job opportunity boost the confidence of not just the survivor but also her family. At the same time it offers both the public and us, survivors, to interact in the open and become sensitized.

She endured another nine surgeries on her eyes, nose, ears, throat, lips and hands over the course of four years, and had her last surgery in 2009, which left her in critical condition and on a ventilator for four days.

It took five years to convict the perpetrators, but in 2010 her attacker and his accomplice were sentenced to ten and seven years in prison, respectively. More good news came in 2013 when the Supreme Court ruled on a petition that she had filed years earlier and passed orders that led to the regulation of the sale of acid, compensation for the victims, after-care, and rehabilitation of the survivors, limited compensation from the government, reservation in educational institutions, and easier access to jobs.

Shortly thereafter, having heard about her petition, she was approached by Alok Dixit, the founder of Stop Acid Attacks, a charity that helps victims in India. He offered her a job as a campaign coordinator.

Soon afterwards, Agarwal became a penetrative voice for the survivors of acid attacks across the world. She began speaking openly about the painful moments after the attack that left her contemplating suicide, how her parents helped her gain confidence, and how she stopped being ashamed, removed her dupatta, and started walking freely. She speaks about women’s rights and safety and the plight of acid attack survivors. She also educates women on consent and how to protect themselves, as well as to men on how to respect women. Based on her own journey and the journeys of those she has met along the way, she has realized how many additional challenges survivors are faced with and how it has greatly impacted their quality of life. Everything from health, to finding a job, to feeling like a welcomed part of society is a challenge that needs to be dealt with.

In 2014, Agarwal and Dixit’s efforts culminated in the Chhanv Foundation, an NGO dedicated to helping the survivors of acid attacks in India. She, along with the organization, campaigned aggressively and started a discussion around acid violence in the country. Furthermore, through the foundation, Agarwal reached out to hundreds of victims and began to assist them with treatment, legal aid and rehabilitation. However, it didn’t stop there, Agarwal recognized that to help other survivors, she needed to help restore a sense of purpose in them. She opened Sheroes Hangout, a local cafe in Agra and employed other survivors, providing them with opportunities to regain their livelihoods.

Doctors told my parents that I won’t survive. But I had to survive to share my story with all of you.

Times of India

She founded Stop Sale Acid, a campaign against acid violence and sale of acid. Agarwal started the campaign with #StopSaleAcid which garnered nationwide support. She also gave a TEDx Talk in 2017, and she has been hosting Udaan, a TV show on New Express since 2014. She is the face of several brands, including NIMAI’s new luxury fashion brand Promise, and clothing brand Viva N Diva, challenging the stereotype by becoming the face of fashion brands even after undergoing several reconstructive surgeries.

In 2014, Agarwal was presented with the International Women of Courage Award by the then U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama for her courageous fight for acid attack victims and human rights. She was awarded the prestigious Mother Teresa Award in 2018. She was also honoured as “India’s Next Superstar,” where her life story was portrayed through an act. Earlier this year, she received the Women Achiever Award from FICCI Ladies Organization and the International Women Empowerment Award from IWES, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation and UNICEF, for her campaign Stop Sale Acid.

Her courageous fight has caught the eyes of many more, including director Meghna Gulzar, who filmed a biopic on Agarwal’s journey, starring Deepika Padukone as Laxmi Agarwal. Chhapaak opens in January 2020. As Agarwal says “He threw acid on my face, not on my dreams.” She never stopped dreaming and today, she is synonymous with courage and beauty around the globe.

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