October 22, 2011, is etched in Kunti Soni’s memory like a scar. That was the day when a few splashes of a fiery liquid turned her world upside down, shattering her self-confidence and sense of security.
Two years into her marriage, Kunti had just stepped out of the mobile parts factory in Lucknow where she was employed when she was confronted by her husband. The two had had a heated argument and in a premeditated attack, Kunti’s husband poured acid over her face and arms. She survived.
Kunti, who is in her 20s, says her husband, a “habitual drunkard,” suspected her of adultery as men also worked in her factory. “He deliberately poured the acid over my face so that no other man would accept me,” says she.
Though she received timely treatment, she lived in trauma for at least three months after the attack.
“I would stay at home and weep all day. When things started feeling normal, I looked for work but nobody wanted to employ me. ‘ Aisi ladkiyon ko kaam nahi dete [nobody employs such women]’, they would say,” says Kunti.
The threat of her former husband--she separated from him after the incident-- attacking her again also worried her as he was out on bail after spending some time behind bars. The case is now moving at a snail’s pace.
New lease of life
With a gloomy future staring at her, Kunti was on the verge of depression when her lawyer got her in touch with Chaanv Foundation, an NGO that works for acid attack survivors. Life has not been the same for Kunti ever since.
The NGO trained her to work at the Sheroes Hangout Café, a restaurant started by it and run exclusively by acid attack survivors. Kunti joined Sheroes in March and is today among the 8-10 acid attack survivors, all women, who have made Sheroes a place to visit if you are in Lucknow.
“I feel nice here. The car picks us up and drops us here and back to the hostel after work. Work is also not too stressful. We are free to do whatever we want, something I thought I could never be able to again. The salary we get here helps us stand on our feet,” says Kunti.
Sheroes is located opposite to one of Lucknow’s most famous landmarks, the sprawling Ambedkar Park built by Mayawati. Despite the logistical advantage, till little more than a year back the breezy stone complex the café is housed in could hardly grab the imagination of Lucknowites. A restaurant functioned from there, but it failed to develop a reputation.
The scene is different today. The place has developed into a hub of artistic activities such as discussions and book launches, and, of course, leisure.
The menu is exciting, and the decor is themed on women’s issues and awareness about acid attacks.
Battling social stigma
“Women who face acid attacks are low in morale and face pressure from home. Unmarried women have a harder time. Our aim is provide them a platform to bring them out of their homes. While working at Sheroes, we let them develop interests that they would like to pursue later on,” said Vasini Singh, HR manager of Chaanv Foundation.
The cafe is run with the support of the State Women and Child Development Department.
It was inaugurated last year on International Women’s Day by then Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav after he was impressed with a similar outlet run by the NGO in Agra. “The government provided us the space and also pays the salaries of the staff,” said Ms. Singh.
The NGO also supports these women medically and legally, besides training them in English speaking and guest management skills. Some women are also pursuing their studies .
The mainstay of the restaurant, however, are the people who run it.
“People who face acid attacks are tormented by the society. They are made to feel like it was their fault. People would say that I got attacked as I must have had a bad character and other nasty things. But here, people behave nicely with us. We are not made to feel like outsiders,” says Preeti Patel (21) of Fatehpur.
Preeti was attacked with acid in 2014 by a 45-year-old neighbour, after she protested against his harassment. “He tried attacking my face, but I was lucky. The acid fell on my back,” says Preeti, who has been working at Sheroes for a year.
For Asma, who is in her 40s, Sheroes is more than just a temporary rehabilitation. It is her avenue to financial independence and, most importantly, security. Hailing from a Jat family in Meerut, she was attacked by her in-laws after she couldn’t pay dowry to them.
She was often physically assaulted at home and was seven months’ pregnant when her husband and his family threw acid on her.
“They poured acid over my belly. They thought if I gave birth to a boy, he would get legal rights over the family’s property and they would find it hard to get rid of me. But I gave birth to a stillborn,” says Asma.
Easy procural of acid
While Sheroes allows these women a new sense of independence and security, the easy sale of acid is still a cause for concern for them.
“Even a seven-year-old child can walk up to the chemist and ask for acid, and the chemist will oblige without an inquiry. I have myself done the experiment. The chemist did not ask me why I was buying the acid. With just ₹15 [cost of the acid], you can ruin somebody’s life,” says Preeti.
Further, the accused are often not punished or walk out free on bail.