Working and socialising was just a dream for Ritu Saini and her friends a few years ago after acid attacks left them disfigured for life and prisoners in their own homes.
They were too scared to step outside their door for fear of people pointing and grimacing or little children crying. And their plans for a future were halted. Ambitions they once had as teenagers had been stolen. Their lives were almost non-existent.
But now, thanks to a charity in India called Stop Acid Attacks, survivors across the country have come together. United they are re-building dreams and there’s renewed hope for the future.
Ritu, along with Rupa, 22, and Geeta, 42, with her daughter Neetu, 23, run a café called Sheroes Hangout, on Fatehabad Road, near the Taj Mahal, in Agra, northern India. It is their first job since they were viciously attacked.
‘I can’t tell you how amazing it is to be able to work, to have structure to my day, and to be with friends and feel strong and confident,’ said Ritu, 22, who was attacked in 2012 by a family acquaintance to settle an argument. ‘This café has changed my life. I’ll never forget the day I heard about this charity, and the people I have met because of it. I hate to think what my life would be without it.’
Acid attacks are sadly very common in India, men often targeting women in public places as a form of revenge linked to family disputes, sexism or misogyny.
There are no official figures on acid attacks in India but it is estimated that there are up to 1,000 a year.
I can’t tell you how amazing it is to be able to work, to have structure to my day, and to be with friends and feel strong and confident
While Ritu was the victim of a family dispute, Rupa was allegedly attacked by her stepmother in 2008. But due to a lack of evidence she was found not guilty in 2009.
‘My days had been very dark since that night, in 2008, but this project has seen the old me return. I am so happy, and grateful to the charity for their support,’ Rupa said, who has had 11 operations on her face so far. ‘One day I met another acid attack victim at a hospital. It was an unusual feeling to meet someone who had gone through my own horrific experience. I felt her pain, but also felt at ease knowing there was someone else who understood. We got chatting and she told me about this charity. She explained it helped women like us.
‘I went home that day and I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I contacted them. A lovely lady came to visit me and she told explained they will help me stand on my own two feet again. And I began visiting the charity weekly. I soon saw there were many young girls who had met the same fate as mine. But I also noticed they were a bunch of energetic happy girls – not shy of their deformed face – working hard to achieve their dreams.’
Rupa had at one time in her life wanted to be a fashion designer. With the help of the charity she was able to do a seven-month tailoring workshop and she began to draw designs and practiced on their sewing machine.
She added: ‘It filled my days and I had purpose again. I focused my attention on my designs and not my scars. Within weeks I had started my own clothesline – Rupa Designs.’
Now Rupa sells her clothes at the café and she’s had many clients enquiring and buying her designs.
Ritu takes care of the book section and front desk, while Geeta and Neetu work the kitchen making sure the waiters serve good food.
Geeta and her daughter Neetu were attacked in 1995 by her husband. Neetu was just three years old when her own father stole her sight when she lost her eyes to the burning acid he threw over her.
‘We’ve spent the last 20 years living a very quiet life with not a lot of prospects,’ Geeta said. ‘But this café has brought us possibilities. We wake up in the morning with a purpose now.’
The cafe initiative was born from the founders of the Stop Acid Attacks charity in a bid to give the girls somewhere to base themselves and to work and have purpose.
It opened last month and it’s already welcomed a huge number of locals and tourists who come in to relax, drink coffee or have their lunch from the delicious menu.
Alok Dixit, 26, one of the founders of Stop Acid Attacks, said: ‘I don’t call this café a business, it’s more of a hang out, somewhere for the girls to work and integrate with society and feel normal, while on the side it can become as successful a café as it wants.
‘It was important for us to build something for the girls. We not only want to help them with official work and create tougher laws for acid attacks, we also want to help their futures. Many lock themselves away, cut themselves off from society but they don’t need to do that, they just need some help to find the confidence to live again.’
Alok has also worked on putting pressure on the Indian government to publish guidelines to regulate the retail sale of acids. Acids have been easily available in general stores across India for less than 50p per liter.
Last year parliament passed a bill permitting more rigorous punishments for assaults on women. Previously, acid attacks were prosecuted as general acts of violence and courts were free to issue sentences. But under the new bill, the minimum jail term for acid attacks is 10 years; the maximum is a life sentence.
Alok said: ‘The survivors are happy because there has been some movement and in that sense, it is a victory. But the government must pay for the full treatment costs of survivors; set up a rehabilitation and compensation scheme; and increase the minimum sentence for acid attacks to life imprisonment. These are movements we will be very happy about.’