Women at Café Sheroes. Photo: Ritu Mahendru.Far from the limelight of the Taj Mahal, Café Sheroes in Agra, India is run by survivors of acid attacks.
Girls and women, who were attacked by their male stalkers, jilted lovers, relatives or fathers, are serving hot drinks and working as chefs. In one corner, t-shirts that read “Stop Acid Attacks” and “My beauty is my smile” are for sale.
Those who work here support broader campaigns for gender equality – for women to access public places without fear of violence, and express themselves freely.
21-year-old Bala told me that the first time she came to the café, she was a quiet person. She had stopped talking after an acid attack, but this place gave her confidence to “open up and talk”.
Bala was 17 when she was attacked by a landowner who had killed her father. Her brother reported the murder to the police, and the landowner was given a seven-year sentence. Despite this, he was shortly released, Bala said. “When he came out he attacked me with acid to take revenge.”
Rukkya, 30, was attacked by her sister’s brother-in-law who wanted to marry her at the age of 15. “I first thought he had thrown coffee on me. I was screaming. My face was melting and burning. I then realised he had thrown acid at me,” Rukkya told me.
“I first thought he had thrown coffee on me. I was screaming. My face was melting and burning. I then realised he had thrown acid at me.”
Acid attacks are often intended to disfigure women who refuse to marry a man or deny their sexual advances. They have also happened amid family conflicts, domestic violence and spousal abuse. Usually premeditated, and aimed at the victim’s face, the goal is long-term damage.
24-year-old Rupa says her stepmother attacked her when she was 15. She poured acid on the girl while she was asleep at home in a village in Uttar Pradesh.
Sana, now 23, was assaulted three years ago by her in-laws because she couldn’t meet their dowry demands.
Geeta, 40, and her 26-year-old daughter Neetu, were both disfigured when Geeta’s husband poured acid on them as they slept, because he wanted a son. He also targeted his younger daughter Krishna, who later died from the attack.
Geeta and Neetu at Café Sheroes. Photo: Ritu Mahendru.The women I spoke to had third and fourth degree burns. Each had suffered damage to their scalp, mouth, neck, chest, arms, hands, eyes, ears, and nose. The acid affected their skin and disfigured their faces. They endured extreme trauma and pain.
Most girls and women who work at the Sheroes café come from rural areas and smaller towns mainly from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where little or no specialised health services exist to support them.
They told me they must travel long distances for treatment and often have to go to a special government-run hospital in New Delhi, where capacity is low, treatment is expensive, and waiting times are long.
All of the women I met have had several reconstructive surgeries. Although acid attack victims are entitled to compensation of up to INR 300,000 (around US$4,600), it is not easy to obtain and may not cover the total cost of treatment and rehabilitation. As a result, survivors may be driven into severe debt.
Bala has already had eight surgeries and explains her ordeal following the attack: “When I was assaulted, we called the police but the police wouldn’t listen. I was suffering for two to three hours before I was taken to a medical facility. It took me several hours to get proper treatment.”
Across the country, healthcare facilities are not always prepared to immediately deal with severe chemical burns. After initial consultations there is no guarantee of follow-up visits. Hospitals lack resources and women don’t always get seen on time.
Bala says she’s travelled to appointments in New Delhi only to find “there are no doctors available. We make such a long journey and we don’t get seen.”
Similar feelings and experiences were expressed by other survivors in the cafe.
Every year, an estimated 1,000 women are attacked with acid in India.
Women are a majority of the victims of acid attacks. Every year, an estimated 1,000 women are attacked with acid in India. However, there is little official data on these assaults; most cases go unreported and unregistered.
In 2013, the Indian government amended the national penal code to better record and try to curb incidences of acid attacks. The legal changes restricted over-the-counter sales of acids, and made it the sellers’ responsibility to request and record identities of buyers, reasons for purchase, and quantities sold.
But this is a country where strong social networks seem to precede everything else. Acid still finds its way into the hands of attackers, and such assaults still occur.
Rupa at Café Sheroes. Photo: Ritu Mahendru.One accessible acid is Tezaab, commonly-used in Indian households to clean toilets and rusty items. It’s easily available and cheap to buy from local shops.
But attacks are driven by more than the availability of acids. Discrimination and violence against women are widespread in India and acid attacks are often carried out to ‘control’ women’s sexuality, limit their mobility, and generate fear.
My conversations with women at Café Sheroes suggested that many acid attack perpetrators go unpunished by offering bribes or using their own influence to circumvent laws.
However, the women did not express anger. They explained that justice can only come from the creation of spaces where they feel socially included, by the wider community, and from the reinforcement of government laws.
They demanded a greater focus on prevention, rather than crisis response. They also expressed gratitude that they may continue with their lives at the café. Their ongoing struggle for equality reveals the real face of India.