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.
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.