A day at the Sheroes Hangout (India)

World’s first café chain run by female acid attack survivors

Aletta André

Today’s article is by guest writer Aletta André. She writes about Sheroes Hangout first of its kind, a chain of café s fully managed by women acid attack survivors in Uttar Pradesh, India. Their bodies might be scarred but not their courage. Sheroes Hangout is becoming a successful example of how women acid attack survivors in India are taking a control of their lives.

Set up close to Agra’s Taj Mahal, a well-known tourist destination in India, is a small café Sheroes Hangout. The women running it – Ritu, Rupa, Geeta and Neetu – all have a personal horrific story of how their faces were maimed in attacks with a corrosive liquid.

Instead of leading a worthless and melancholic life as their attackers might have wished for, these women are just doing the opposite. I visited the outlet shortly after it opened in 2014. “Initially I covered my face, scared of what people would think”, says Ritu.

At the age of seventeen, almost four years ago, Ritu was a victim of a family feud over land. Not only was her face scarred, she lost her chance to complete her education as well as her spot in the State-level volleyball team. Working at Sheroes Hangout gave her new opportunity and new confidence. “Now I show my face. If you want to talk with me, great, if not I don’t care.”

Awareness was one of the main goals of establishing this café, says Alok Dixit, founder of Stop Acid Attacks in 2013, a non-profit organisation behind the venture. Dixit says, “People often don’t look beyond the scars of these women. Because of those scars, their skills are ignored. We want to give people a chance to get to know them.” Looking back, in the past 18 months, Dixit says the undertaking has been able to create awareness beyond expectations. By the end of 2015, this cafe in Agra even got a surprise visit by the Chief Minister of the state, Akhilesh Yadav. Dixit was encouraged to open a second outlet in the state capital, Lucknow. In March this year, the Lucknow branch was opened in a space provided free of charge by the state government. With a space for 25, this outlet has already hired 8 women acid attack survivors, even as more are being recruited.

“Initially I covered my face, scared of what people would think. Now I show my face. If you want to talk with me, great, if not I don’t care.”

–  Ritu, Acid Attack Survivor

The Horrific Tale

With UP CM’s personal interest in Sheroes Hangout, things became a bit easier for some of the acid attack survivors in the state. More than 20 years after the attack Geeta and her daughter Neetu, two women working at the Agra cafe, finally got financial compensation from the state government. It was Geeta’s husband and Neetu’s father, who threw acid over them in their sleep when Neetu was still a toddler. He came home drunk and frustrated as they had no son. Neetu’s baby sister died from her injuries, and she became almost blind.

With the one million rupees (about US$15K) the mother-daughter received, Neetu’s eyes are being treated. They are also building a house for the family. By working at her work at Sheroes Hangout, Geeta earns not only money but also respect. Along with her daughter Neetu, Geeta has represented acid attack survivors at several events across India. Besides being a coffee shop, the women working at Sheroes also get to explore other talents. Ritu looks after books section at the store, while another employee Rupa designs and tailors clothes she sells in one corner of the café. This was Dixit’s second goal when he started the café – to train the women and help them become self-reliant.

Bringing about a change

Acid is cheap and easily available in India. The Supreme Court of India had decreed the government to limit the sale of over the counter acid to people over 18. But the judgment has been ignored over the years. Recently the Supreme Court ordered all governments to provide free treatment for acid attack survivors. The order is yet to be implemented according to Dixit, who regularly refers victims to hospitals, because the government has not regulated how the hospitals should receive their payment. While Dixit continues to fight these battles, he acknowledges that the most needed change is that of mindset. “Men in our society think a woman isn’t worth anything”, he says, explaining that some of them can simply not handle it when a woman is too outspoken or too ambitious. “I know women who have been attacked just because their male relatives did not like their character.” He believes that the women of Sheroes can help to change this mindset. “But it will take time.”

Meanwhile, with two cafes running, a third outlet will open in Udaipur, a historical town popular with foreign tourists. For now, survivors from other parts of India are sent there to man the café and find and recruit local survivors to join the team.

Aletta André is a Dutch freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She can be followed on Twitter @alettaandre and alettaandre.wordpress.com. 

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