In India, A Cafe For Acid Attack Survivors Serves Pure Courage

Activists fighting the social plague of acid attacks against women in India have opened a new cafe in Agra staffed exclusively by survivors who have been disfigured in this way.

In India, A Cafe For Acid Attack Survivors Serves Pure Courage
Aletta Andre

AGRA — Geeta, along with her two baby daughters, was attacked by her husband, who was drunk and angry because they didn't have a son.

"We were sleeping. He threw it while we slept," Geeta says of the acid attack. "My youngest girl died. He threw it over the three of us."

Her daughter Neetu, now 23, survived, but she is almost blind and is illiterate. For his barbaric offense, her husband was jailed for just two months. And when he was released, Geeta says she had no other choice but to take back this abusive husband, who still drinks and hardly works.

"Nobody helped us," she says. "They laughed at us. People make jokes. I used to work as a sweeper, but we cannot get by on that."

But she now has new hope because Geeta is the kitchen manager at the new Sheroes Hangout café in Agra, India. "It's a new chance," she says. "If we work hard, we can move forward."

Hardika, a local volunteer, takes me on a tour of the café, which also houses a library and features some of the work of other survivors that clients can purchase. The walls are covered with colorful paintings, and the café is filled with trendy bamboo furniture. When the doors open later this month, Hardika says there will be lots to offer.

"These dresses are designed by Rupa," she says, pointing at the work of another acid attack survivor. "She loves stitching, and that's why she will be running her own boutique from here. Then, after that, we have a library, with basically books related to feminism and women empowerment. So people can come, read the newspaper, have a coffee. So yes, I expect this to become a tourist hangout, and the youth of Agra can also come here and enjoy."

A cultural plague

The café is the idea of a Delhi-based campaign called Stop Acid Attacks, which raised $25,000 via crowdfunding to rent and renovate the space.

At one of the tables sits Alok Dixit, a former journalist who founded the Stop Acid Attacks campaign. "The idea is to make them financially independent," Dixit says of the victims. "Our survivors were covering their faces, they were very shy, they were very uncomfortable. Just because their face was disfigured, their skills were ignored. They were not given jobs. This hangout is a chance to get to know about them. If you give them a chance, they can rock. Don't value a face, value a person."

Dixit estimates that there are at least 250 such attacks a year in India, and the victims are overwhelmingly women.

He says it's much too easy for people to buy cheap acid at corner shops. And though the Supreme Court ruled last year that acid sales should be restricted, not much has changed.

A video made by the group shows one of their volunteers buying acid in a corner shop.
Dixit has sent it to the authorities hoping they will act.

"This is about culture, not religion," he says. "There are many Muslims who throw acid, there are many Hindus who throw acid. Because in their culture, they don't treat women as human beings. They are someone's property. When that property starts refusing things, they feel that they should teach her a lesson. So this is the sad reality of the society — but slowly, it can change."

Ritu, 19, became a victim in a family property dispute, so her aunt hired two men to attack her. From a motorcyle, the men attacked Ritu in broad daylight in a crowded marketplace.

"I called for help, but nobody helped me," Ritu says. "It was very painful, and I still have to go for operations."

She hasn't been able to go to school since the assault, and her attacker and 13 accomplices are still on trial.

Meanwhile, Ritu is learning how to live with her new face. In Sheroes Hangout, she runs the library, which is filled with magazines and inspiring books for customers to read.

"First I thought: "What will people think if they see me?"" she says. "So I was hiding my face until I joined the Stop Acid Attacks campaign. Now I show my face and think that whoever wants to talk to me can do that, or not. I'm happy in Sheroes. I want to tell every survivor who now stays in or hides her face to come outside and fight for a new life. Only then something can happen."

Geeta, Ritu and Dixit are hoping the café will turn a profit within a few months so that the survivors can start earning a salary.

And if they succeed, they plan to open many more such places all over India, where acid attack survivors can demonstrate their worth and proudly show their faces.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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