“You hold the acid that charred my dreams. You will hear and you will be told that the face you burned is the face I love now. You will hear about me in the darkness of confinement.” So said Laxmi, a “Stop Acid Attacks” campaigner from India in her first poem recalling the horror when at age 16 her friend’s brother threw acid on her face when she refused his advances.
“The time will be burdened for you. Then you will know that I am alive, free and thriving and living my dreams,” she said Tuesday as she was honoured by US first lady Michelle Obama with nine other “extraordinary women” from 10 countries with the 2014 Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award.
“When we see these women raise their voices, and move their feet and empower others to create change, we need to realise that each of us has that same power, and that same obligation,” said Obama at the State Department ceremony.
Catherine M. Russell, US ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, thanking Laxmi for “what you did” told her that her “poem was beautiful and your spirit, obviously, has not been crushed by what happened to you”.
Deputy secretary of State Heather Higginbottom, who presented the awards, recalled that last year the US “honoured the memory of a tremendous young Indian woman known simply as Nirbhaya”, a victim of the 2012 gang rape in a Delhi bus.
“This tragedy sparked outrage and inspired people all over the world to come together to say no more looking the other way when gender-based violence happens, no more stigma against victim or survivors,” she said.
“That is also the message of Laxmi from India,” said Higginbottom, noting “acid attacks are committed almost exclusively on women, particularly on young women”.
“Many of the victims feel they have no choice but to withdraw from society or even commit suicide, and they’re more common than you might realize, in part because it’s such an easy weapon to get your hands on,” she said.
Until recently, anyone could walk into a store and buy a litre of acid as cheaply and as easily as a bottle of window cleaner, Higginbottom said.
“But after her attack, Laxmi became a tireless campaigner against acid attacks,” she said.
“Thanks to her hard work and tremendous diligence, Laxmi was successful in petitioning the Supreme Court to order the Indian government to regulate the sale of acid and to make prosecutions of acid attacks easier to pursue.
“And she continues to push for progress still today. For fearless advocacy on behalf of victims of acid attacks and for bringing hope to survivors of gender-based violence and disfigurement, we name Laxmi a Woman of Courage,” Higginbottom said amid applause
Other recipients of this year’s award were: Nasrin Oryakhil (Afghanistan), Roshika Deo (Fiji), Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze (Georgia), Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar (Guatemala), Fatimata Toure (Mali), Maha Al Muneef (Saudi Arabia), Oinikhol Bobonazarova (Tajikistan), Ruslana Lyzhychko (Ukraine) and Beatrice Mtetwa (Zimbabwe).
The award annually recognizes women around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk.
Since the inception of this award in 2007, the Department of State has honored 76 women from 49 countries.