Mrs Kulsum Shadab Wahab is the executive director of Hothur Foundation, a Bengaluru-based organisation that has been working tirelessly to ensure a dignified living for the economically backward section of the society.
The organisation is committed towards diverse goals — providing safe living space to such persons, girl child education, working for differently-abled kids, and most importantly rehabilitating and empowering the acid attack survivors.
Her understanding of human suffering is evident the moment she starts narrating her journey of working with the less privileged. Having worked for over a decade, she strongly believes in the mantra of 'giving back to the community.'
Speaking to The Logical Indian, Kulsum says, "the organisation has been working in providing quality education, medical attention, counselling to the underprivileged. Also, we have contributed to infrastructure development with the construction of roads, education centres and bus stations."
A fashion enthusiast, she is one of those few individuals who has effortlessly combined her interest with an intent. And, she has been passionately working towards it for the last nine years.
"I wanted to redefine beauty. I wanted to reverse the stigma attached to acid attacks and the survivors. I wanted to give them a purpose.
Growing up in India, I was curious about fashion. It gives me immense happiness to see that my passion for fashion has given the survivors a sense of direction and relief through Ara Lumiere," shares Kulsum.
Ara Lumiere, a fashion luxury brand, has won international accolades for handmade headgears by the acid attack survivors.
"Ara Lumiere started as a therapeutic workshop for the survivors of acid attacks and we were engaged primarily in creating handbags. I was wearing headgear during one of my sessions, I unmindfully left it on the desk and to my amazement, one of the survivors replicated the headgear," shares the social entrepreneur.
Ara Lumiere's handcrafted accessories were part of the Milan Fashion Week, 2019 and it also won the 'Camera Moda' award at the fashion week.
Turning the conversation to the current times, she says that the coronavirus pandemic has hit the disadvantaged to a great extent. There has been a significant increase in the cases of domestic abuse during the COVID-19 lockdown and Kulsum has been directing her efforts in addressing the issues.
She tells The Logical Indian that her organization has a panel of psychologists who are providing counselling sessions over a dedicated helpline number. The victims are the ones who have either received counselling before or the survivors who after trial and tribulations had returned to normalcy.
"The calls, the stories have brought a host of issues to the fore, the issues we did not even know existed or was happening in the country. We encountered three issues in which the women were infibulated (female genital mutilation).
If we could find as many as three cases of infibulation in a small group of women, there would be many more," exclaimed Kulsum.
According to her, the women have to stay put because of the societal pressure, lack of communication with their families and the shame attached to confronting such issues.
"I am going to take the conversation forward and talk about infibulation. Apart from the acid attack incidents, the genital mutilation needs to be banned too," she added.
The foundation has created a safe haven for the survivors during the pandemic and is providing for all their requirements which includes food, medical needs, psychological assistance and livelihood.
A proper and dedicated channel has been in place to provide assistance to the women seeking help. The team can be contacted through the helpline number and relevant aid is provided after studying individual cases. Additionally, the team also provides guidance and livelihood opportunities for the husbands.
Kulsum thinks that being on the forefront of such a movement has helped her understand that her organisation has just touched the tip of the iceberg. There are bigger problems shadowed due to victim's sheer silence.
"Indian women live for their families, they are taught to sacrifice for their families. There have been cases when a woman's health is not given priority," she asserted.
Kulsum has several feathers to her achievement's cap, one of them being a gender equality activist chosen by Gucci, the brand and Chime For Change.
She says acid attacks and domestic abuse roots back to gender-based violence.
"Gender inequality has been the root cause of several social issues. It is because women are not treated equally, denied equal pay and have to work hard to earn a credible place in the patriarchal society.
The financial crisis and economic crisis have added to their woes. Especially during the coronavirus outbreak which has brought the entire world to a standstill," she remarks.
Spearheading an organization that is tackling the humanitarian crisis during COVID-19, she tells The Logical Indian about the challenges that she and her team have confronted since the last four months.
"Lack of awareness is a big concern and the pandemic-induced financial crunch has added to the difficulties.
The business has hit a pause a too. The stockings that were supposed to be up at several stores in Milan has been put on hold due to the economical downturn. We have lost out on production, have been pushed back by at least six months," says the philanthropist.
Talking about the products and the plans to resume the activities, she sheds light on the accessories created by the survivors and although each one of them is being quantified and has a price tag, she tells The Logical Indian that each accessory has a story to tell.
"The accessories created are niche products. The handmade headgears speak the stories of the survivors, their hardship and the trials and each one is unique with its own story.
Even the kind of feather used is symbolic of the survivor's emotions. We are planning to get into apparels as soon as the lockdown situation stabilises which I am hoping would balance things for me," she says.
Hothur Foundation has also come to the rescue of the migrant workers who have been the worst-hit due to the coronavirus outbreak. The organisation has provided food supplies and wages to help them tide over the crisis.
The foundation has also collaborated with Shahrukh Khan's Meer Foundation in creating awareness about acid attacks and also provide rehabilitation to the survivors.
Answering a question on if the survivors/victims ever return to a normal and happy life, Kulsum says that her organisation believes that 'beauty is not skin-deep.' Her team works with each survivor— help instil confidence in them to go out and live their lives.
"I am surprised and inspired by these women and their resilience. It is a superpower. Sometimes I gather my strength from them.
One of the survivors is my go-to person when I am low. Whether it is her voice or the conversation, it is therapeutic. It is hope and it makes me realise that we have to be grateful for the things we possess and count our blessings," she explains.
Talking about the hindrances that prevent such survivors from living a happy and fulfilled life, she says that social acceptance is the need of the hour.
Kulsum has also been proactively working towards creating awareness on the concept of Skin Banking.
Skin banking is the process of storing and preservation of skin where people can donate skin, mechanism similar to organ donation, which can be used for an acid-burn survivor.
" I am connected to each of the survivors that I have come across. We are not just helping the survivors get through tough times but we aim to empower the entire family. It might also include the children's education or livelihood for their husbands. It is a process," she adds.
On being asked if there was a message she wanted to give to the young women, she says, " Every woman should empower each other, lift each other up. As women, we should not put each other down. We cannot change the world, alone. That's not the case."