In the shadows of the Taj Mahal in Agra is a monument dedicated to the brave survivors of acid attacks in India. Sheroes’ Hangout has garnered much appreciation from a large number of tourists who throng the Taj Mahal just half a mile away.
Rupa, one of the five women who run the cafe said she was thrilled when the first batch of customers trooped in. They were appreciative of their work and stopped to talk to the survivors. Since then they have seen a steady stream of visitors who not only drop in for a steaming cup of coffee but to converse with them as well.
Sheroes’ Hangout started Agra in December 2014 in north India. It started out as a way to crowdfund the projects initiated by Stop Acid Attacks. This group is committed to putting an end to the attacks against women. The cafe has a “pay as you wish” policy that goes towards the treatment and rehabilitation of the survivors of acid attacks in the country.
They have visitors from all over the world. They drop by after getting to know about the cafe. People come here to get a firsthand account of the battle the survivors have fought. Kumari, one of the survivors was attacked in 2012 when she resisted the overtures of a person.
Keeping Kumari company at the care is Ritu Saini, Neetu Mahor, and Gita Mahor. They all lived secluded lives for years, struggling to cope with the trauma and the pain. They then discovered “Stop Acid Attacks”, a campaign started on Facebook.
Acid attacks have been a continuing phenomenon with the victim suffering the pain and the subsequent trauma without the support of society. Stop Acid Attack, based in New Delhi has helped them with medical and legal issues. They have stood by them and Sheroes’ Hangout is among their several initiatives.
The National Crime Records Bureau has found that 1,000 acid attacks are committed every year and the majority goes unreported and unpunished. SAA has collected data of 430 survivors. 70% are women, 50% attacked by lovers who were turned down. The unrestricted acid sale in India is a reason for a large number of attacks.
SAA is helping out Gita Mahor, and her daughter Neetu Mahor, who were attacked by Gita’s husband. Neetu’s sister had succumbed to the attack. They were forced to live on with the assailant just to support themselves. To save them from further distress, SAA provided them with a means to earn a living.
Victims of acid attacks are further traumatized as society rejects them. They need help to see them through the initial journey till they regain their confidence, says Alok Dixit, founder of SAA. Gita and Neetu are now confidently facing society as they serve customers at the cafe and share their stories.
SAA has also strived to train the victims and help them acquire life skills. Gita took a course in baking and has learned to make cupcakes and cookies. Neetu is nearly blind and has taken singing lessons. She welcomes the guests at the cafe. Saina, 19 was a national level volleyball player before she was attacked over a property dispute by her cousin in 2012. She lost an eye and looks after the accounts. She is confident enough to move around without covering her face. Rupa was attacked by her stepmother at 12. She is now a tailor and apparel designer. Her creations are sold at the cafe. The cafe is helping them become independent and also letting the world know their story.
At 20, Shikha Singh is a fashion design student. She makes it a point to visit the cafe regularly. It has opened her eyes to the reality of acid attacks. She says she prefers to spend her money at this cafe than at KFC or McDonald’s outlets. At least it lets her know that the money is being spent for a just cause.
All Images: Sheroes’ Hangout