Monday, 30th October 2017

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The courage to make a difference

Sheroes' Hangout. This is a café with a difference - a large poster of an acid attack survivor greets you at the entrance. As you step into the café, you see the posters of female survivors of violence that line its walls. Each poster prominently displays the face of a woman, her name, and the date she was attacked. The waitresses, all of whom are acid attack survivors, are dressed in smart blue pants and white t-shirts that have the message, "Stop Acid Attacks", boldly printed on them.

By Jael Silliman
  • Published 30.05.18
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In the posh Gomti Nagar locality of Lucknow, a stone's throw from the Taj Vivanta, I visit a popular café: Sheroes' Hangout. This is a café with a difference - a large poster of an acid attack survivor greets you at the entrance. As you step into the café, you see the posters of female survivors of violence that line its walls. Each poster prominently displays the face of a woman, her name, and the date she was attacked. The waitresses, all of whom are acid attack survivors, are dressed in smart blue pants and white t-shirts that have the message, "Stop Acid Attacks", boldly printed on them.

The sprawling, open café with its large courtyard - built during Mayavati's faux building spree - is an inviting and empowering place. It has comfortable cane couches, shelves of books and good food at extremely reasonable prices. This brings together a wide range of people. Sheroes' Hangout rents out its large space for public events, as the venue is very central and easily accessible. It is the brainchild of Alok Dixit and Ashish Shukla, crusaders in their efforts to stop the heinous crime. Acid attacks - the throwing of acid or a corrosive substance at someone's body with the intent to disfigure, maim, torture or kill - are most prevalent in South Asia. Bangladesh has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of such attacks, although, mercifully, these are on the decline. In India, the most attacks occur in Uttar Pradesh.

Court records from 2014 show that 309 acid attacks were reported across India, with 185 in Uttar Pradesh, 53 in Madhya Pradesh, 11 in Gujarat, and 27 in Delhi. According to the Acid Survivors and Women Welfare Foundation, there were 220 reported acid attacks across West Bengal between 2010 and 2016. In Pakistan, husbands attack wives who they claim have 'dishonoured' them. In India, the majority of these attacks are listed as 'gender crimes', committed to take revenge on a woman who refused the perpetrator's sexual advances or proposals of marriage. Dowry-related acid attacks are also a problem. Men are also subjected to such crimes.

Acid attacks are not limited to South Asia. London has a very high occurrence. The London Metropolitan police recorded 465 acid attacks in 2017. These were committed by men against other men, and were related to gang violence. Most acid attack victims outside the subcontinent are male. The reasons for such attacks vary across the globe - punishment for those refusing to abide by political and religious strictures, conflicts in personal and business relationships, and gang violence.

Dixit and Shukla started the Stop Acid Attacks Campaign in 2013 to create awareness, conduct advocacy, and demand proper treatment of survivors by the government. Laxmi Agarwal, a survivor herself, is a spokesperson for the campaign. She was just 15 when she was attacked by a 32-year-old man whose advances she had rejected. She took her case all the way to the Supreme Court.

In Laxmi versus the Union of India (2015), the court ordered the Central and state governments to regulate the sale of acid. Parliament made prosecutions for acid attacks easier to pursue. Agarwal's prayer for a victim compensation scheme to be established in all states and Union territories was notified, with a minimum compensation of Rs 3 lakh per survivor. Finally, the court agreed that full medical treatment, aftercare, and rehabilitation should be provided to survivors, and action must be taken against hospitals refusing to give them necessary treatment.

In 2014, Dixit and Shukla started the Chhanv Foundation, a support centre for acid attack survivors. Agarwal is its director. Located in Delhi, the foundation provides a nurturing and supportive space for survivors awaiting treatment and an opportunity for them to be around others like themselves. Boosting survivors' confidence and self-esteem is fundamental to Chhanv's mission. It also provides survivors with financial assistance in their treatment, counselling, aftercare and help with job searches.

Finding employment for acid attack survivors is a challenge. To address this problem, Chhanv established a Sheroes' café in Agra. Crowd funding made this possible. The Agra branch proved to be very popular and is listed on TripAdvisor. In 2015, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, visited the café and wanted one like it in Lucknow. He provided a prime location for the Lucknow café that inaugurated it on International Women's Day in 2016.

The Sheroes' outlets in Agra and Lucknow stand testimony to the young women who have endured this crime and been able to rebuild their lives. It is also testimony to the remarkable commitment of Dixit, Shukla and Agarwal. Dixit and Agarwal have a daughter, Pihu. They have been leaders in the effort to stop acid attacks and build public awareness. They are developing a database of acid attacks across the nation. In spite of the advances they have made, acid is still all too easily available, and many states are reluctant to provide survivors with compensation.