“When dreams die, they do not make much noise. When hopes are crushed, the signs are soundless.”
Sheroes Hangout is part of a community-led initiative helping acid attack survivors in India to restore dignity and to find a new lease of life.
Run entirely by acid attack survivors, the two popular cafes in Agra and Lucknow, northern India, include a cafe which serves some lip-smacking snacks, a library that has been set up through contributions, an activism workshop, a community radio hub and an exhibit space where works crafted by Sheroes are on display.
Young women busy themselves carrying trays and chatting to guests with ready, confident smiles. These girls are survivors of attacks on them by men – often random hate crimes – where corrosive chemicals, usually acid, have been thrown in their faces.
Acid corrodes gently. When a girl is attacked by acid, she is also relegated to the fringes of society, consigned to its dark recesses. Often, forced to hide away from society. It is these faces that the group of friends behind the Delhi-based Chhanv Foundation started to bring to light in 2014 with its first cafe in Agra. Alok Dixit and Ashish Shukla started the Stop Acid Attacks campaign in 2013, in an attempt to spread awareness, advocacy and also demand from the government proper treatment of the victims.
In India, there’s a gendered aspect to these attacks, and according to The Chhanv Foundation – the organisation behind Sheroes – it’s an epidemic, with more than 250-300 such attacks each year.
As well as acting as a cafe and hangout spot, Sheroes, which opened in 2013, also runs workshops, music events, debates and book launches.
Before her attack, Rupali had acted in regional Indian cinema: “I loved appearing on TV”, she says. But now she hates looking at her old photos. Rupali was on a shoot near her home when she was attacked. It left her unable to see for two months and with her impaired vision she was unable to identify the attacker. Although the most devastating aspect of her trauma came later, when her father rejected her. But she found acceptance after the attack at Sheroes.
Girls from such backgrounds are under pressure to marry. “When their faces are ruined, everything changes for them”, explains Ashish Tiwari who is part of the NGO that founded Sheroes. “People stop inviting them over, families even stop celebrating their birthdays”, says Ashish. “People take it for granted, but our visual identity matters a great deal to us.”
“The girls here had a very difficult life even before the they were attacked”, Ashish continues. “But afterwards, they stopped leaving their homes altogether. The world doesn’t change. The only person that changes is yourself. So we told survivors that unless they helped themselves, no one else would… and slowly their confidence grew… and what could be more beautiful than a woman coming forward to change her life after facing such malice?”
Sheroes brings society closer to the reality of acid attacks, and gives the women affected the chance to reclaim their lives. As Ashish puts it: “Sheroes is not a business, it’s a responsibility”.
Journalist and blogger, he has worked as an editor for several travel, nature and science magazines for the last 20 years.
Alok Dixit and Ashish Shukla, Co-founders, Chhanv Foundation and Stop Acid Attacks