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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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India Acid Attack Survivors Stand Up

Neha Sharma

Mar. 29, 2017

Victims of acid attacks are speaking out in an effort to change Indian society.

The country faces a serious social problem in the form of violence against women, including disfiguring acid attacks, which are increasing in number. Around 250 such attacks were reported in 2015.

Many victims shut themselves off from society but some have broken their silence, particularly in the town of Agra. An NGO opened a cafe there 3 years ago that employs acid-attack survivors.

One of the workers is Ritu Saini, who was attacked on her way to high school 5 years ago. She learned that the attack was ordered by her cousin, who had proposed marriage and was angered when she refused.

"I had no idea what had happened. My skin burned and I screamed," Ritu recalls.

Victims like Ritu are left permanently scarred by the sulfuric acid, which is used to disinfect toilets. Laws are supposed to regulate its sale, but it is still readily available at many shops.

Ritu once dreamed of playing on the national volleyball team but the attack ended that dream. She suffered burns on 90 percent of her face and lost sight in her left eye. She hid at home, and when she did need to leave, she covered her face with a scarf.

"I lost hope," Ritu says. "I thought my life was meaningless and I thought I would rather die than live that way."

Ritu wasn't the only victim of the attack. Her father, Sitaram, is an auto mechanic and his income has been strained by the 9 surgeries she needed.

"I'm brought to tears when I think of my daughter's plight. I wanted her to be happily married," he says.

What saved Ritu from the depths of despair was an encounter with another survivor. Neetu Mahour also works at the cafe. She was attacked by her own father when she was just 3 years old and lost almost all her eyesight. When Ritu first visited the cafe, she was touched by Neetu's positivity.

"She has long been left in the dark. But she is doing her best in life. Seeing her, I came to believe that I myself could do more," Ritu says.

Ritu decided she also wanted to work at the cafe. At first, she was afraid to meet people, but now she is able to share her story with others.

"She's very, very brave and very strong," says one customer at the cafe. "It's important to raise awareness of these issues. This should never happen to anyone."

Ritu is broadening her horizons by speaking to groups of other young people, including a recent talk at a university in New Delhi.

"At first, I wanted my attackers to suffer the same pain I had gone through, but I no longer hold a grudge. All I want now is for no other people to suffer as I did," Ritu told the audience.

She encourages people to think about why attacks on women happen.

"If you have a chance to meet the perpetrator, what would you ask him?" a young woman asked her at the event.

"I would ask what drove him to do it. It happened because nobody tried to ask how he felt," Ritu replied.

Ritu strongly believes that she and other survivors can change the society that allows such attacks to happen -- and that inspires her to keep pressing ahead.

"My world is no longer in black and white, but is full of color. I am a new person now," Ritu says.

The NGO that supports the victims of acid attacks says a driving factor behind this violence is the belief held by men that they are dominant in Indian society.

Authorities there have begun imposing stricter punishments, including life imprisonment, on crimes using acid. It's also providing economic support to the victims.