Ayush Rastogi, an India Fellow from the 2017-18 cohort, shares his experience of meeting acid attack survivors. As a part of the fellowship, he works in Ranchi, Jharkhand.
Recently I visited my hometown Lucknow and was excited to visit this place called Sheroes cafe. It can make you rethink about the way you see life. Initially, you might feel uncomfortable but then, it's only inspiring. You may lose a sense of how to act and how not to, be a bit conscious for the fear of offending the staff but you can’t take your eyes off them.
Sheroes is a cafe run by women who are acid attack survivors. It would be wrong to call them victims, specially because of the fighter spirit. It is a wonderful Initiative by Channv Foundation and Stop Acid Attack Campaign, a cafe, the first branch of which was opened in Agra by 5 survivors. Later with the support of Uttar Pradesh government, they were able to open another one in Gomti Nagar, Lucknow.
During my visit, I got an opportunity to talk to one of the survivors. Bittan, who now likes to be called Soni, changed her name because she wanted a fresh start, a new beginning without any baggage from the past. It's been 3 years now that Soni started working at Sheroes. She had recently celebrated her birthday and was excited to tell me about all the gifts she got.
Soni was born in Sirsi, Sambhal, a small village near Moradabad and got married at a young age of 15. Little did she know that her husband was not only an alcoholic, but also abusive. Things became worse when he was kicked out from his job as a guard and started asking her for money. One night when Bittan refused to give him any more money, he left. Later that night he got really drunk, came back with a bottle of acid and splashed it on Bittan’s face while she was asleep. Her neighbors immediately took her to the hospital but FIR wasn't filed against her husband.
She was too scared to live with him anymore. Her parents didn't accept her back due to social pressures. Her entry in her own village was stopped as most people thought she was cursed. For one whole year, she was all by herself when help came in the form of Acid Attack Campaign. Her story shook me and left me teary eyed but Soni was siting strong right in front of me, making sure the tea I had ordered was re-heated.
The cafe has a positive and refreshing vibe, probably because they focus on fighting against discrimination, believe that every individual gets equal opportunity and a second chance at life. It's not only a step towards empowering women but also to enable survivors have a ‘normal’ life.
Sheroes is more than a cafe run by survivors. It is a safe space where people know that they won’t be judged. Programs on gender discrimination and legal awareness are organised on a weekly basis. They also train the girls to use computer and mobile phones helping them utilize social media as a tool for learning and empowerment. Additionally, it provides a space for creating handicrafts and exhibiting them. Essentially, it is a platform for those who face the stigma of a social crime and refuse to give up.
To tackle any issue, our goal should be to reach to its roots and work on them for sustainable results. Showing concern on the face of it will not help unless we make an effort to change our attitude. The current education system contributes in making the adult dysfunctional, by teaching theorems, completing syllabus and maintain a robotic functioning of the society. Instead of teaching us how to think, it teaches us what to think. We are taught how to find jobs but not how to solve problems. Our values are restricted to the chapters of a moral science book where we face judgement at every step we take and outer beauty still decides the worth of an individual in this society, we need to question our ways. Where is the place for respecting human dignity in the busy schedule of mugging up?
Why is it that every time we get to know about acid attacks, we can't wait to offer sympathy?
Why do we look away when we spot an acid attack survivor?
Why do we think their lives have been ruined just because they cease to define the standard of beauty?
Why is it that the crime of others live with us forever?
These women, however, take pride in who they are, a human and that’s how they expect to be treated.