India, Sheroes Cafe, acid attack, women, Aletta Andre

Geeta, along with her two baby daughters, was attacked by her husband.

He was drunk and angry, because they didn’t have a son. 

“We were sleeping. He threw it while we slept. My youngest girl died. He threw it over the three of us.”

Geeta’s daughter Neetu, now 23, survived, but is almost blind and is illiterate.

Her husband was jailed for just two months.  

And when released Geeta says she had no other choice but to take back in her abusive husband.

Her still drinks and hardly works.

“Nobody helped us, they laughed at us. People make jokes. I used to work as a sweeper, but we cannot get by from that. Now I joined these people to start a new life.”

She now she has new hope because Geeta is the kitchen manager here at the Sheroes cafe.

“It is a new chance. If we work hard, we can move forward.”

“Then we have a couple of tables here, so people can come, they can enjoy, can can read, they can talk, they can laugh… so now we’ll be going upstairs.”

Hardika, a local volunteer is taking me on a tour of the cafe.

The walls are covered with colourful paintings and it’s filled with trendy bamboo furniture.

When the doors open later this month, Hardika says there are lots on offer....

“These dresses are designed by Rupa. 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 be a tourist hangout, and the youth of Agra can also come here and enjoy.”

The cafe is the idea of a Delhi based campaign Stop Acid Attacks.

They raise 25,000 US Dollars via crowd funding to rent and renovate this place.

At one of the tables is Alok Dixit, a former journalist who set up the Stop Acid Attacks campaign.

“The idea is to make them financially independent. 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.”

As well as setting up this cafe Alok and his group are trying to stop attacks from happening.

He estimates there are at least 250 attacks at year in India.  Most of the victims are women.

Alok says it’s too easy for people to buy cheap acid at corner shop.

Last year the Supreme Court ruled that the sales of acid should be restricted, but not much has changed. 

Alok shows me one of their videos that shows one of their volunteers buying acid in a corner shop.

He sends these videos to the authorities hoping they will act.  But says it’s challenging.

“Enemy is our mind set. This is about culture, not religion. There are many Muslims who threw acid, there are many Hindus who threw acid. Because in their culture, they treat women not as a human being. They are someone’s property. When that property starts refusing things, they feel that they should teach her a lesson. He learned from his parents that he should control his wife. So this is the sad reality of the society, but slowly it can change.”

19 year old Ritu’s aunt hired two men to attack her.

She became a victim in a family property dispute.

The men attacked Ritu in broad daylight in a crowded market place. They threw acid on her face from a passing motorcycle.

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

She has not been to school since the attack

Her attacker and 13 accomplices are still on trial.

Meanwhile Ritu is learning how to live with her new face.

In Sheroes café she runs the library, filled with magazines and inspiring books for customers to read.

“First I thought, what will people think if they see me. 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 met 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 to fight for a new life. Only then something can happen.”

Geeta, Ritu and Alok are hoping to make 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 hangouts all over India, where acid attack survivors can show what they are worth, rather than hide their faces.

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