What do you think happened when a 16-year-old school dropout was attacked with acid in the dead of night at her own house in a remote village in Uttar Pradesh, scarring her for life. No, she didn’t grieve and let fate determine.
She has beaten all odds and gone on to become nursing officer at India’s most prestigious medical school and hospital – All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). And her legal fight for justice ensures that others like her, in the grip of various disabilities, are considered for employment at government-affiliated institutions.
In a story that is heart wrenching as well as inspiring, Yasmeen Mansuree, not only fought against her disability, but also the stigma attached to acid attack survivors to achieve her dream of financial independence and social recognition. Her efforts are helping several others with setbacks, ensuring the implementation of an act, which would have otherwise remained on paper for long.
Her counsel Gyanant Singh filed a petition in the Delhi High Court after AIIMS came out with an advertisement, in October 2018, to fill up 2,000 vacancies across India. However, in the disabled category, application was open only for people with one leg despite The Rights of Persons with Disability Act, 2016, widening the ambit of disability, including acid attack victims.
“We approached the court on the strength of this Act of 2016 and the court stayed AIIMS recruitment after the first hearing. Over the next 15 months, we continued our struggle and finally, she was given the offer letter in January 2020,” says Singh, who fought the case pro bono.
Mansuree was subsequently found suitable for the job and given the joining letter.
While her struggle is now bearing fruit, the journey has not been an easy one. It was on April 7, 2004 that some assailants threw acid on Mansuree, her five siblings and parents at their house in Shamli. The victims were rushed to the local hospital where they were treated for a week. And then were referred to Delhi’s Safdarjang Hospital, which has the world’s largest burns unit in terms of patient turnover.
“While my other family members did not suffer much, my younger sister and I were severely affected. I lost my left eye. After many months of treatment at Safdarjang, we moved to the hospital’s dormitory as we needed continuous medical treatment,” she said in an interview in December.
By 2006, Mansuree’s health had stabilised though her treatment continued. It was then that the class 5-dropout enrolled herself in the National Institute of Open Schooling, which offers education up to the pre-degree level as an alternative to the formal system, especially for neo-literates, school dropouts and other special cases.
“I passed the class 10 examination and then class 12 too. I was determined to get educated and become financially independent,” she says. Mansuree scored enough marks to enroll in Delhi University’s Gargi College for graduation in arts. But before completing the first year, she learnt about the nursing course being offered by Jamia Hamdard and appeared for the entrance test. And after she was selected, she moved to DU’s Distance Education programme to complete her graduation.
“The biggest challenge for me was to learn English as nursing courses are offered in that language. I had no exposure to an environment where English was used. But I was determined to learn because it was crucial for completing my nursing course. And I did it,” says the 31-year-old.
She took up her first job in Jamia Hamdard as a nurse, working there for two years. Then she succeeded in clearing nursing examination for vacancies in Delhi government hospitals.
While Mansuree has got her dream job with AIIMS now, Singh says it is still a long journey ahead for people with disabilities to get employment. “It is unfortunate that though the new forms of disability were recognized by Parliament in 2016, probably the first appointment has been made in 2020 following an intervention by the court. I hope that other institutions will follow soon,” he says.
For now, Mansuree is happy to have achieved her dream of working with one of the country’s top medical institutions. And just like all girls, she loves to look beautiful, always. “I enrolled for a beautician’s training programme some years back. I love to dress up well, wear make-up, go out and enjoy. My being an acid attack survivor has not changed the girl in me,” she laughs, realising little how her fight will continue to brighten the life of many others, with disabilities, in the years to come.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)