When Lucknow-based social worker Meena Soni (48) was attacked with acid by her husband 17 years ago, she did not let the incident define her life and the future of her three children. Instead, she began working for the upliftment of marginalised women, and recently also landed a job as a manager at a restaurant. Soni survived 75 percent body burns.
Unfortunately, the story is not the same with most survivors, who struggle to make ends meet. In order to challenge the status quo, Soni filed a petition on the social media platform Change.org in February 2021, urging homegrown tea chain Chaayos to employ acid attack survivors at its outlets across the country. Her plea elicited a response from the brand, which has now committed to hiring one acid survivor in every outlet.
“Chaayos has always believed in inclusive and merit-driven hiring and it reflects in our work. We believe that economic empowerment goes a long way in making people independent as well as in changing society. We salute the grit and courage of acid attack survivors to fight off everyday struggle even after going through immense trauma and pain. And grit to excel is the quality Chaayos values the most while hiring. Chaayos is and has always been open to hiring all courageous people who have a strong drive to excel including acid attack survivors,” said the brand in response to her petition.
Soni believes Chaayos’ response is a step in the right direction, and will encourage other brands to follow suit.
“I think it’s a huge victory for acid attack survivors. We live in a society where various aspects like looks and personality are taken into account while considering an applicant for a job, especially if it involves handling clients. With this petition, I wanted to send across a message that we, too, are humans and deserve the opportunity to prove ourselves,” she says.
According to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 1,483 victims of acid attacks in the country between 2014 and 2018. In 2013, the Supreme Court had passed an order, prohibiting the over-the-counter sale of acid in the country. Yet, acid is sold at markets without having to show any ID.
“I feel women are anyway relegated to the sidelines. To add insult to injury, when something like an acid attack happens, the society looks at them with pity. I do not want people to feel sorry for me. I want them to give me work, so that I can become financially independent,” adds Soni.
The fateful night
Soni was fast asleep when her husband threw acid on her face. She instantly felt a burning sensation all over, and fled from the scene. Before she could report the incident to the police, her husband died by suicide.
“At the time, I was working as a reporter with Khabar Lahariya. My husband was always aware that I was courageous as a person, and if the news spread, he would be in trouble. I think there was some fear within him...that’s what I feel,” says Soni.
Describing her husband as “suspicious”, she adds that he was unable to make peace with her success and financial independence.
“I would go out to work, while my husband would stay at home. He was suffering from tuberculosis; I would work hard to afford money for his treatment as well as to raise my children. Somehow, he didn’t want me to speak to anyone, or didn’t even want anyone to look at me,” recalls Soni.
Today, she is proud to see her children stand on their feet. Her eldest daughter recently got married, while another daughter and son are pursuing their graduation.
“I do not know English at all, but wanted my children to study at institutions of repute and learn the language. It fills me with immense pride, seeing them fulfil their dreams,” shares Soni.
Fighting the good fight
For more than a decade now, Soni has been working for undertrial women in jails, and helps them receive legal assistance. Until now, she has helped 30 of them get bail.
“I have also paid the penalty imposed on them a few times. A lot of women are languishing in jails on trumped-up charges. Since most of them belong to underprivileged backgrounds, they have no knowledge of the law,” she explains.
Soni has always been passionate about helping other women, and with her recent petition to Chaayos being answered, things are looking bright.
“I feel once a few survivors reach that platform, it will be great. I, too, want to be associated with them, but I can’t move to Mumbai or Delhi. If I get any such opportunity in Lucknow, I would love to take it up,” concludes Soni.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)