Laxmi, who was honored by Michelle Obama on Tuesday, was just 16 when she was attacked by a spurned suitor

Credit: Arkaprava Ghosh/Barcroft Media /Landov

Eight years ago, when a spurned suitor threw acid on her face, Laxmi thought her life was over. Finding love and achieving her dream of a career in television seemed impossible.

But on March 4, honored by First Lady Michelle Obama with the International Women of Courage Award, Laxmi talked about her struggle – and triumph.

Referring to the man who attacked her when she was 16 after she refused his advances – he was jailed for what he did but apparently his sentence will soon be up – she read a poem she composed: “You haven’t thrown acid on my face, you threw it on my dreams … The time will be burdened for you. Then you will know that I am alive, free and thriving and living my dreams.”

The petite 23-year-old has undergone a dozen operations to repair the disfiguring burns on her face and body. For years she felt suicidal. A second blow was the death of her beloved father, who sank into depression over his daughter’s agony. Eventually she emerged from her despair with a determination to prevent other women from suffering a similar fate.

Laxmi, who goes by her first name, campaigned tirelessly against the easy availability of acid in India – available at any grocery store for 50 cents. Last year, she enjoyed her moment of triumph when India’s Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling, ordered the government to regulate the sale.

“When we see these women raise their voices, and move their feet and empower others to create change, we need to realize that each of us has that same power, and that same obligation,” Mrs. Obama said after congratulating Laxmi and nine other women at the State Department ceremony.

The award is given to women who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating peace, justice, human rights and gender equality.

Finding Love and Opportunity

Perhaps Laxmi’s greatest reward is that she has rebuilt her life. “A relative once told me that, given how I looked, I could forget ever finding love or romance,” Laxmi told PEOPLE.

But last year, she met Alok Dixit, a 26-year-old journalist who joined her campaign. The two fell in love and live together in Delhi. “I was attracted to her courage,” Dixit told PEOPLE. “She is an exceptional young woman and for me, she is beautiful.”

She’s also found a job as a television news anchor. When she got the call from the local news channel, she thought at first it was a cruel hoax. But the call was real, and Laxmi will go on air in a few weeks.

Finding love and new opportunities has helped Laxmi heal emotionally as well as physically. “How could I hate men or suspect them all?” she said. “My father was the best man in the world, and my brother and Alok love me, so how can I possibly feel that all men are bad just because one man was wicked?”