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Chhapaak: Why I Believe It’s Time We Chose Support Over Sympathy

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The world of social media will be completely aware of the trailer release of Deepika Padukone’s Chhapaak – the first ever film to be made on the menace of acid attack. Directed by Meghna Gulzar, Chhapaak is based on the heart wrenching story of Laxmi Agarwal, an acid attack survivor and a social activist.

The trailer has already received great rounds of applause from the cinema fraternity and well as from audience. Deepika’s portrayal of Laxmi and her gripping performance is expected to be something to look up to.

So, why is this movie important? No, not because it is expected to be a commercial grandeur or a cinematic masterpiece, but it is very important to know what acid attacks mean! Beyond the pain and deformity that a victim gets for the rest of their life, it is important to understand how it causes social exclusion and humiliation.

What’s also important to know that this grave offence does not really entitle any stringent punishment. The culprits easily get bail and continue to a part of the society happily whereas the victim gets only adversity, pain and injustice.

The fact is Chhapaak should not be categorised as a woman-centric movie only because anyone can be a potential victim of an acid attack and pain does not discriminate on the basis of gender.

So, who is Laxmi Agarwal and why is her identity so important to us?

Born to a middle-class family in Delhi, a cheerful teenager Laxmi dreamed of becoming a singer. A man named Nadeem Khan, 32, wanted to marry her but she was not interested. Our society and the element of patriarchy that has been infused into it, that we cannot value consent. Nadeem refused to take no for an answer and stalked her, but she continued to reject his advances.

In 2005, Laxmi was on her way to a bookshop in Khan Market, when she was accosted by Nadeem, who attacked her with acid. She lay on the street, writhing in pain, until a taxi driver came forward and rushed her to the nearby Safdarjung hospital. That one moment, that one splash of this deadly chemical and the one-sided attraction of a man changed Laxmi’s life, forever.

She had to undergo multiple surgeries and was in the hospital for three months. When for the first time after three months she faced the mirror, she was horrified as she was left with no face. Eyes, ears, nose each and every part of the face was just reduced to pieces of flesh. People, especially women, taunted her and even spoke ill about her and family. They questioned her upbringing and faulted her for the attack. But the support from her parents gave Laxmi the courage to move ahead with the multiple surgeries she needed.

She was tormented both physically and mentally. She found her own sight unbearable and she refused to go out and meet people for quite a long period of time. Once, she even decided to put an end to her life but her parents brought her back from a dark place and supported her strongly. She started taking counselling sessions that gradually revived her confidence and faith in her capability.

The attack could not bring Laxmi down. In 2006, she filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court and sought a total ban on the sale of acid. Her thought was why should such a potentially destructive substance be allowed to be sold in random shops?

In 2013, the court ruled in favour of her plea, and imposed restrictions on the sale of acid. The same year, Laxmi took the charge of campaigning for Stop Acid Attacks, founded by Alok Dixit and Ashish Shukla. Not only did she make people aware of this crime but also she worked extensively towards the social acceptance and self-dependence of the survivors by becoming their voice.

She was honoured by former First Lady Michelle Obama with the International Women of Courage Award. She was given the award for her courageous and selfless advocation for justice and human rights. Thereafter, Laxmi along with Alok Dixit and Ashish Shukla started the Stop Acid Attacks campaign, their efforts culminated in the establishment of Chhanv Foundation in 2014, an organization that works towards upliftment of acid attack survivors in every possible way. Alok Dixit and Laxmi fell in love and together, they crushed all societal prejudice to be together. They have a daughter together named Pihu.

Chhapaak is not a mere depiction of the misery the victims of such violence go through. It is rather, a ray of hope. This is to make all of us understand that just physical deformity cannot kill high spirits. This is a message for society that they must stop punishing those who have already gone through so much. While every survivor must be motivated to hold their life, we all need to support them, wholeheartedly in whatever possible way we can.

For example, a job opportunity can boost the confidence of not just the survivor but also her family and at the same time give them a scope of spreading their social interactions.

Also, we must raise our voice with equal conviction for acid attacks as we raise for other issues, to make anti-acid attack laws more stringent so that it can combat such crimes. The government needs to give all such victims strong legal and financial support through different measures. Let’s hope for a better tomorrow, built on understanding and support.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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