A Place for India’s ‘Sheroes’ To Hangout

By Archana Patrick

Sheroes’ Hangout is unlike any regular café as it is the only cafe in India or perhaps even in the world, run by acid attack survivors.

Originally set up in 2014 and based in the Indian tourist hub of Agra, just blocks away from the Taj Mahal, the cafe expanded its operations in other major Indian cities such as Lucknow in 2016. The café is an initiative of Chhanv Foundation, a Delhi-based organisation, and founded by Alok Dixit, a prominent social activist and Ashish Shukla, a lead campaigner on raising awareness on acid attacks and resident photographer with the Foundation.

The name of the café – “Sheroes”, is a play on the words “she” and “heroes”, as an ode to female acid attack survivors who essentially move away from the traditional patriarchal term “hero”. As quite succinctly put by Abhay Singh, Director’s Desk associate of Chhanv Foundation and spokesperson for the café, “at this café, the women and girls are the true heroes as they are actively involved in the operation of the café.”

In an interview via email, Abhay said “we never really had an idea to start a café as we only needed a project in which the acid attack survivors can work and earn an income for themselves”.

“As we came across acid attack survivor Rupa, who was already earning an income by tailoring before the attack, we thought perhaps other girls can work in a boutique and they can earn from work in such a project.”

He further added, “as we came across acid attacks survivors, Geeta and Neetu, a mother and daughter residing in Agra, who were living in very poor socio-economic conditions and did not know any stitching or tailoring, we had to start a project that provided them employability and to live in society with dignity, which gave rise to the concept of a cafe”.

The distinctive feature of the café is not entirely the range of food and beverage available but rather its ‘pay as you wish’ concept and the fact that it houses a library, a community hub including a gathering space for performances, a boutique corner exhibiting and selling works by “Sheroes”.

The statistics of acid attacks in India receives less attention although there are 250 to 300 cases reported every year, despite laws restricting the sale of acid and other deadly chemicals, according to Stop Acid Attacks, a non-profit group.

To this extent, Abhay remarks that the number of acid attack survivors who reach out to the café for help range between 17 years to 35 years of age including married women and teenagers. “When they come from villages and work at the café, it is a culture shock for them. It takes several months for any survivor to get oriented to the working environment.”

According to Abhay, it is for this significant reason the café conducts various training programmes to cultivate vocational and communication skills in survivors to restore hope in them to lead a decent life again. Among the notable training programmes held over the years include IT Skills & Development with Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS) Lucknow, Project UDAAN held at Noida and a Hospitality Management training programme with TAJ Vivanta Lucknow, under the TAJ group of hotels.

The impact Sheroes Hangout has had on its employees is priceless – in 2016, the café celebrated its second year anniversary, heralding a new milestone in removing the social stigma associated with acid attack victims.

Ritu Sainu, an employee at the cafe, faced 10 reconstructive surgeries after she rejected a romantic advance from her cousin, eventually losing one of her eyes. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she said, “Before Sheroes, I used to cover my face.”

Another acid attack survivor, Rupa, a restaurant manager at Sheroes Hangout and fashion designer, conceded, “Earlier, I used to cover my face with a scarf but not anymore. Though I never gave up on my dream, I did not think that it would be possible one day”, she said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

In 2017, Rupa was awarded the Nari Shakti Award by President Pranab Mukherjee in conjunction with International Women’s Day.

If there is one message that echoes forth from the female acid attack survivors working at Sheroes Hangout, it is this: to reduce the social stigma associated with disfigured appearances of acid attack survivors and to condemn acid attacks as a heinous crime.

To learn more about Sheroes Hangout, visit https://www.sheroeshangout.com/ or their Facebook and Instagram page. To support their cause, write to them at sheroeshangout@gmail.com.