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Close to the Taj Mahal, in Agra, India, in a small cafe tucked between trinket shops, five women–all maimed in acid attacks–are waiting tables downstairs or cooking curries in the kitchen upstairs. Their work at Sheroes Hangout is designed to give them the confidence to show their faces in public after being disfigured.
And it goes the other way too. If customers haven’t met someone with acid scars before, they will have by the time they leave the cafe. Pictures of the women’s faces adorn the walls and their images are writ large in graffiti on the exterior. “The primary focus has been to create awareness,” says Alok Dixit, the founder of Stop Acid Attacks, the Delhi-based nonprofit behind the establishment, which opened in December.
The cafe and its popularity–it attracted more than 5,000 customers in the first six months, according to the nonprofit–reflect a shifting attitude toward survivors of acid attacks and to the crime itself in India, where around 309 cases were reported in 2014.
Reforms to the law in 2013, made attacking someone with acid a separate offense, punishable with up to 10 years in prison. Before that, perpetrators were dealt with under laws relating to intentionally causing grievous hurt and were harder to convict. A subsequent ban on over-the-counter sales of acid and mandatory free treatment for the victims of attacks have also helped to lift the veil on a crime that forced those affected by it into the shadows. From behind the counter at Sheroes, 23-year-old Neetu Mahour, greets customers wearing a white shirt with Stop Acid Attacks written in bold red letters on the back.
Scars snake across her face. Acid, thrown in her eyes by her father 20 years ago, left her almost blind. Her mother Geeta, who also works in the cafe, was injured in the attack, her infant sister Kishna died as a result of it.
“I didn’t go to school because of the attack,” said Ms. Mahour.
Sheroes has brought her back into public view. Before starting work at the cafe, the women meet other survivors. The idea is for them to see that it is possible to thrive even after an attack.
“We show them that nothing is wrong with them,” Mr. Dixit says. His team of 10 work with individuals to break down barriers to them speaking out. They also encourage the women to be proud of the way they look.
The cafe was inspired by a similar concept at a beauty salon in Pakistan and crowd funding helped get it off the ground. Believed to be the first of its kind in India, it has so far not turned a profit.
“The idea at heart isn’t a business,” Mr. Dixit says, though they are working “to develop more of a business model.”
The five women employed in the cafe share similar nightmarish histories but all say they want to inspire others who live through similar situations.
Ritu Saini, 20, was attacked in Haryana, a state in Northern India, three years ago by her cousin whose romantic advances she rejected. After 10 reconstructive surgeries, that were “as painful as the attack itself,” Ritu lost her left eye.
“Before Sheroes, I used to cover my face,” Ms. Saini said. “I wanted to know why he did this to me.”
Now, as the cafe’s floor manager, she walks around with her face on show and encourages other women to do the same. “I want every girl to believe in herself,” she says.
Ms. Saini is also learning English. “Now, I am busy. I am forgetting. I don’t care to know why he did it.