A bustling bakery in India has made it its mission to employ domestic violence survivors – especially those left with burns scars – in a bid to encourage acceptance in the community.
The Writer’s Café, in the heart of Chennai, southern India, opened its doors six months ago and it’s not only proud of its cozy interiors and delicious food, but predominantly its staff.
Currently, there are seven women working in the café who have all been survivors of fire attacks and they believe the café has has helped them to build their life again.
Waitress Asma, 28, who suffered fire burns after accidentally setting herself alight in a bid to threaten her controlling husband, said: ‘I was initially very hesitant about my scars but working here has changed my life. The customers are encouraging; one told me I was beautiful and it really boosted my confidence. I enjoy working. I’ve so many things like baking cakes, muffins, cookies.’
‘Most importantly, I realised the importance of life.’
The café is associated with the non-profit organization, International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC), which receives all the café’s profits. PCVC aims to rebuild the lives of survivors of domestic violence and to facilitate their self-empowerment. It’s also directly connected with Kilpauk Medical College, the only hospital in the state of Tamil Nadu with a specialist burns unit.
Director of PCVC, Rashmi Singh, said: ‘Around 120 women on an average are admitted to the unit every month and approximately 70% of them do not survive due to the severity of their burns. But 9 out of 10 are domestic violence cases and unfortunately get officially reported as accidents as they fear repercussions.
‘We look after these women; counsel them and help to rebuild their lives both physically and mentally. Getting these women back into society after they have suffered rejection and violence is very important. It is important to make them self dependent and motivated.’
‘We work with several places who will employ them but the café is unique.’
All members of the Writer’s Café are recruited through PCVC and every story is heartbreaking.
Asma, 28, is a mother of two, and had a controlling alcoholic husband. She accidentally set herself on fire in 2013 when she was trying to threaten her husband.
‘He used to accuse of me having an affair,’ she said. ‘I had a great job but he never let me go because he thought I was having an affair. He was an alcoholic and never helped our family. One day I wanted to teach him a lesson or I guess threaten him but it turned into a huge accident. I was burnt from head to toe.’
During Asma’s recovery her husband had an affair and she was forced to move back to her parent’s house with her children.
‘I couldn’t bear the trauma,’ she said. ‘I tried to start again but no one gave me a job. I used to get calls for an interview but was always rejected due to my appearance. I even tried for housekeeping jobs, but I was rejected for them too. It was humiliating and my confidence just vanished. But this place has changed everything. I’m a new person.’
Domestic violence occurs around the world, but what sets India apart from many other countries is the culture of silence that surrounds it.
Data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau shows that domestic violence has been the most reported violent crime against women in the country every year for the past 10 years.
Tamil Selvi, 20, was a child bride at 14. But her husband had an affair with her sister. When she confronted them they tried to kill her by setting her on fire.
‘I was devastated,’ she said. ‘I have no idea how I survived. My only saviour were the people from PCVC. I would not be alive today if I did not have their help. They not only saved my life but also gave me the encouragement to carry on and a reason to live. They have given me a job I could never imagine. I am a different person now. I have the ability and confidence to speak to people.’
‘I feel like I’m a part of society now.’
The owner of Writer’s Café, Mahadevan Muthalampet, said: ‘The café has given these women a new lease of life. They are happy here. We provide them with training, employment and also medi-claims and other facilities that any general employee gets.
‘We aim to help their overall personal development. The primary objective is to rehabilitate these women but we also want to make the young aware of the dire situation prevailing in this country. People often come here to talk to them and hear their stories. They feel comfortable here, where outside they are judged as the ugly sisters. But here, they always have a place they belong.’
Rashmi added: ‘The life of these victims has changed drastically since working at the cafe. It has built their confidence and motivated them. They’d already faced a lot of fear and rejection in life, we can only hope they feel peace and happiness here.’