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Sheroes Cafe Helps Acid Attack Victims Turn Tragedy into Triumph

Sheroes Hangout cafe offers hope and purpose for acid attack survivors

Just down a dusty road from the world’s most famous monument to love, the Taj Mahal, sits a monument of a different type. However, this living monument was not born out of love but quite the opposite. The genesis of the (She + Heroes =) Sheroes Hangout was depravity, misogyny, and ignorance.

Taj Mahal, the world's greatest monument celebrating love
Taj Mahal, the world’s greatest monument celebrating love

Walking into the Sheroes Hangout, we were greeted by a woman whose beauty shone from within. We immediately knew this would be one of the most meaningful meals of our lives. Not because of the ambiance or the all-vegetarian menu, because neither was exceptionally spectacular. But because of the brave women who run the cafe.

Each woman and girl who works at Sheroes Hangout is an acid attack survivor.

What are acid attacks?

Acid attacks are the act of throwing acid onto the face of the victim, who is usually a female. The motivation behind the attacks is retribution for things like domestic disputes, rejected marriage proposals, and spurned sexual advances. Many attackers reason that if they cannot have the woman they desire, they will make her undesirable to other men. For these reasons, most acid attacks are not random acts.

One survivor described her attack as follows:

“When acid was thrown on me, I could feel my face melting like chocolate in the summer.”

Furthermore, acid attack victims are not just victimized at the time of the attack. Acid attack scars are permanent and forever change the lives of their victims. Many victims are subsequently shunned by their families and communities, and they face a lifetime of discrimination and social ostracism.

Meet the acid attack survivors

Each Sheroe’s story begins differently, but the endings are all the same–with hot acid thrown on their beautiful faces. Unlike people who were born with genetic conditions or were in tragic accidents that caused facial damage, each of these women were deliberately attacked by the hands of their fathers, husbands, bosses, family friends, and even their own mothers. In other words, the very people who should love and protect them committed these horrible crimes against their own flesh and blood.

Acid attack survivors from L to R: Bala, Roopa, Geeta. Madhu, and Neetu
Acid attack survivors from L to R: Bala, Roopa, Geeta. Madhu, and Neetu

Following are just a few of the stories of the women who work at the Sheroes Hangout in Agra, India:

  • Bala was attacked by her mother’s boss when her mother refused his unwanted advances.
  • Geeta and Neetu are a mother-daughter pair. They were attacked by Geeta’s husband (Neetu’s father) when Neetu was just three years old. Neetu’s younger sister died in the attack. 
  • Madhu was attacked on her first day of college by an acquaintance.
  • Shabnam’s (not pictured) boss attacked her when she refused his sexual advances.
  • Another woman was attacked by her mother-in-law when she failed to produce a male baby.

Acid attacks and Indian law

Up until 2013, there were no laws that specifically addressed acid attacks. An amendment in 2013 created a specific set of laws and punishments for those carrying out these cowardly, inhumane acts. Even though attackers now face a minimum 10 year prison sentence, acid attacks continue to rise. Approximately 300 acid attacks are reported in India every year. But many people believe the attacks  are under-reported due to pressure not to turn in family members. Experts suggest that the actual number is closer to 1,000 attacks per year.

In addition to criminalizing these barbaric acts, the Indian government now compensates victims between 3-10 lakh rupees (~$4,250–$14,150 USD) and provide free medical care.

Furthermore, the open sale of acid has now been banned. But even this hasn’t eliminated the attacks. The attackers often improvise by using car battery acid as their weapon.

Founding of Sheroes Hangout cafe

After spending much time covering the stories of acid attack victims, two journalists decided they had to do more than just report the news. Sheroes Hangout co-founders, Ashish Shukla and Alok Dixit, opened the cafe to give these women and girls a way to triumph over their personal tragedies. The cafe not only provides these women a way to earn a living, but also provides a new community with each other.

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In addition to founding the Sheroes Hangout, Dixit and Shukla also launched the #stopacidattacks campaign. The mission of Stop Acid Attacks is to create worldwide awareness of this issue and to provide assistance to victims.

During my interview with Ashish, I asked him what Indian women’s greatest challenge is. Without hesitation Ashish candidly replied,

“Being born [female].”

Wow. Let that soak in for a minute.

Changing India’s culture of misogyny

Ashish pointed out that tougher laws have not and will not stop acid attacks–only social change will. When asked if Indian society’s view of women is changing, Ashish replied, “I can’t change society. I can only change myself. And hopefully by others seeing my attitude and views toward women, it will influence how they treat women.”

Kellie interviewing Sheroes co-founder, Ashish Shukla
Kellie interviewing Sheroes co-founder, Ashish Shukla

Ashish hopes this type of cultural ripple effect will make a difference. As noble as that sounds, India needs more than a ripple effect change in social norms; India desperately needs a tsunami-like effect to wipe away their oppressive, misogynistic culture.

Oh, and they need a whole lot more real men like Ashish and Alok.

Even as tourists, we were not immune to the cultural norms. We noticed differences in how Dale was treated versus the girls and me. For instance, on one occasion we were picked up from the airport by a driver. As we walked toward his car, the driver insisted on carrying Dale’s bag for him.

Dale refused and said, “I can carry my own bag. If you want to help with the bags, then help one of the girls.”

The driver completely ignored Dale’s request to help his girls. Dale repeated his comment, and again he was ignored. If this is their attitude towards the visitors that employ them, just imagine how the local women must be treated.

Things to know before visiting Sheroes Hangout cafe

Banner of encouragement hanging inside cafe
Banner of encouragement hanging inside cafe

If you travel to India, then you must visit Sheroes Hangout. Following are a few tips to keep in mind for your visit:

  • The menu does not list prices. You pay whatever you feel led to pay. It’s the sort of place that you might drop $100 for a $20 meal and feel like you got a bargain.
  • There are currently two locations in India: Agra and Lucknow. 8 survivors work at the Agra location and 15 survivors work in Lucknow.
  • Be sure to watch the documentary in the cafe to learn more about the survivors and their stories.
  • To learn more about Sheroes Hangout, visit www.sheroeshangout.com or email sheroes.hangout@gmail.com.
  • Follow Sheroes Hangout and Stop Acid Attacks on Facebook and Twitter.

Finally, I believe the purpose of travel is much greater than seeing the sights and entertaining ourselves. I believe we must look for ways to 1) educate ourselves on what is really going on in the world, and 2) to use these experiences to make the world a better place.

There is no doubt that our encounter with the Sheroes cafe acid attack survivors will stick with us for a lifetime, for they are the bravest women we have ever met.

So What Do YOU Think? We'd love to hear from you!

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