CINCINNATI -- Life changed in an instant for Prerna Gandhi.
While riding on a scooter in her hometown with friends in north Delhi, India, then 13-year-old Gandhi was hit in the face with a liquid by two boys.
Initially, she thought it to be a hot liquid. However, the pain intensified. She went into a nearby home, where she overheard the owner call her mother and tell her that her daughter had just been attacked with acid. Her mother didn't believe the woman until she saw Gandhi at the hospital.
"I was in so much pain," Gandhi said of the attack. "I was shouting; my face felt on fire. They started saying, 'Poor girl, someone threw acid on her.' … When I first saw my face in the mirror, I thought I looked like a monster, that I didn't need to live."
Gandhi underwent at least 25 surgeries -- she lost count after that -- in the first six months. She had no social life, hardly left her house and constantly covered her face. When she did go into public, she heard endless mutterings of "Poor girl, poor girl, who will marry her now?"
However, an opportunity arose through her uncle for her to travel to a Midwestern city in the United States for treatment -- a place called Cincinnati, where she would be treated at Shriners Hospital for Children, which accepts burn patients from ages 16 to 21 at no cost.
By this time, Gandhi fit the bill, and she traveled to the U.S., where she was placed with a host family in Reading, Matt and Heidi Hudson-Flege. As she received treatment, she befriended a neighbor, Graci Doll, and the two became fast friends. When her host family relocated to South Carolina for a job, Gandhi opted to stay in Cincinnati and moved in with the Doll family.
It's through this friendship that the two teens learned firsthand experiences from one another. Gandhi learned about growing up in America and soon set her sights on attending the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash, where she is now a student. Doll's world was opened up to acid attacks and the prevalence of such violence around the world.
Gender-based acid attacks are on the rise, particularly in India and Bangladesh and other South Asian countries where gender inequality is the norm. Victims, usually girls and women, are attacked for a variety of reasons, which can include domestic or land disputes, a rejected marriage proposal or a spurned sexual advance.
"Before meeting Prerna, I had no idea what acid attacks were," Doll said. "When I met her, I had no idea what to think, but I mostly felt angry by the situation she was put in. Nobody has the right to throw acid on a person, and this was happening so much around the world. Meeting Prerna brought this issue to light for me and made me want to do something about it."
And that's exactly what they're doing.
For a week in December, Doll and Gandhi, now 19, will travel to Amity University in India, a partner school for the University of Cincinnati. They'll meet up with UC Vice Provost for International Affairs Dr. Raj Mehta and will speak to Amity students about acid attacks and the treatment of women to raise awareness of the effects of such attacks and how pervasive they are.
Mehta said he, too, didn't know much about acid attacks before speaking to Gandhi. What he knew, he'd learned from the work of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking up against its ban on education for girls, who also advocates for awareness of acid attacks.
After learning about Gandhi's experience, Mehta said he realized how naive he was and said her story helped enlighten him. And while he feels the seminar might open many eyes to the issue and educate both young men and women about acid attacks, Mehta hopes also to spread Cincinnati's positive image at the same time.
"Prerna is a resilient girl. She's gone through a lot since she was 13. I am hoping for students who know someone that is a victim (they) can have a message of hope and that there is help out there. She's beaten the odds," Mehta said.
"I also want people to know that during this time when people talk about the U.S., they know there are genuine people in Cincinnati who have no reason to help her but are, and that they hear a story of generosity of people in the U.S. and Cincinnati."
While Gandhi used to hide her face out of shame or fear, she no longer bothers to do that. She learned how to apply makeup, which will mostly hide the scars that are still visible after all the surgeries, but she no longer wears it. She wears her hair back and without a scarf. She wants to quite literally put a face to the effects of acid attacks.
"After staying inside for about a year, I researched if there were other people like me. You never see these people and they disappear. I want to help those people," Gandhi said. "I'm lucky because my parents were supportive and I have good treatment. I want to help other girls come out of their shells. I should not be ashamed of my scars. I did nothing wrong. … God chose me as a source. Now I truly love myself."