Twenty-eight-year-old Neetu is not afraid of dying. After she was attacked with acid when she was barely three, every day has been worse than death, she says.
The bare facts of her tale are the very definition of horrifying.
Neetu, her mother Geeta and her baby sister were asleep when they had concentrated acid thrown on them – by Neetu’s father. The younger child, just one-and-a-half years old, was so badly burnt that she died two months later.
And there is more: Neetu and Geeta, along with another sister, born later, continue to live with the man who ruined their lives.
Geeta was able to pursue a case against her husband only after receiving help from a lawyer more than a year after the attack. “My mother lodged a complaint, but whenever the police went to arrest my father his uncle and family gave money to the police and this way he evaded arrest for almost a year,” Neetu recalls.
In the end, her father would spend less than three months in jail. According to Neetu, her mother faced “societal pressure” to rescind her complaint and had received messages from her father in jail in which he expressed remorse. Another lawyer helped Geeta get him out.
Neetu claims the family does not know whether her father intended to kill them. He did not see the point in having daughters, she says, and had already planned to marry another woman to fulfill his dreams of having a son.
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Neetu is one of a number of “acid victims” employed at Sheroes Hangout – a cafe which was opened in Agra, in Uttar Pradesh, by the non-profit organization Stop Acid Attacks in 2014. The cafe was started because such women are denied jobs elsewhere.
With her disfigured face and damaged eyes – for which she continues to receive treatment – Neetu endures unknowable pain every day. But both she and Geeta continue to face the world. The latter, also employed at the cafe, hopes to become a chef soon.
In addition to the Sheroes Hangout in Agra, two more branches have been added – in Lucknow, and in Udaipur, in the neighboring state of Rajasthan.
In the Agra cafe, food comes without a price tag – customers are asked to pay what they can. And with their meals they are offered food for thought in the form of educational materials about acid violence and the chance to interact with survivors of such attacks.
“People visit, eat and pay as much as they desire,” says Neetu. “We want people to come visit us. We share our stories with each other. I do not know with what mindset people come to this place. But when they leave, they are completely changed.”
The cafe’s menu includes coffee and other beverages; snacks, sandwiches and desserts; Indian and Chinese dishes; and more. The in-house library, meanwhile, contains many donated books.
“An acid attack is not just about losing face, but also the life that had so far been ours,” Neetu says. “Even after we suffer burns, we are blamed. Depression sometimes drives the victims to suicide. Our mission is to rise above all and prove that we can still live.”
She adds: “I have realized that I should not be ashamed to face the world – [that] should be the person who did it. I have lost my face, my soul is stronger than ever.”
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In the case of Ruquyya, another acid-survivor at the cafe in Agra, her attacker has never been made to answer for his deeds.
Ruquyya was attacked when she was 15, in 2002. She and her mother were visiting her sister’s house in Aligarh after her sister had suffered a miscarriage. Her attacker was her sister’s brother-in-law, who wanted to marry her. She recalls that he told her “If you cannot be mine, you cannot be anyone else’s.”
“My mother refused his proposal and I didn’t even have the maturity to understand all that [marriage],” she adds. “My sister and her husband also did not approve of this proposal.”
After the attack, however, no complaint was registered. Ruqquya’s sister’s male in-laws threatened to ruin her sister’s life if the case was pursued.
In adulthood, Ruqquya has been lucky enough to find a man who accepts her for who she is and they now have a five-year-old child. She has worked at Sheroes Hangouts for nine months and believes it has changed her life for the better. “I had aspired to be a designer, but that dream is dead.”
After several rounds of surgery over the years, she still undergoes treatment. “Such culprits who destroy the lives of girls should not be hanged, but maimed and let to suffer for life,” she says.
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Another woman at the cafe, Madhu, was also attacked after rejecting a man’s advances.
The year was 1997 and she was engaged. On her way home from college one day she was approached by a man who had previously been a suitor.
“Never did I dream of something like this,” she says, recounting the horror. “When I saw him coming near me with a bottle in hand, I thought as usual he is trying to come and talk. But he did not speak a word and just threw the liquid on my face. I fell down unconscious. When I opened my eyes, I was in a hospital.
“My father had passed away long ago and I was the sole breadwinner for the family of three, which included my mother and my younger brother. I had to look after my family. My mother was shattered. She mustered some courage to lodge a complaint against the accused [but] we were threatened that my little brother would be killed. And hence FIR [a “First Information Report” to the police] was not registered. They did not even bother to offer any money for my treatment. We sold our jewelry to foot the treatment.”
Several years later, Madhu married the man to whom she had been engaged at the time – very much against the wishes of her fiancé’s parents. “My husband helped me out of my depression. Everyone may not be as lucky as me.”
No one was ready to offer her a job until she found Sheroes about 10 months back.
“Times are changing,” she says. “Now, we are gaining some acceptance. I am happy that I can earn my living now. Earlier, people never bothered to talk to me and I would often be a laughing stock. But today wherever I pass by, people come forward to speak to me, to hear my story. Life has changed.”
The first stage of the project in Agra was crowdfunded. The next will be in India’s so-called “rape capital,” New Delhi, and will feature a salon for acid-survivors who aspire to be beauticians.
Having experienced untold suffering, more and more women like Neetu, Ruqquya and Madhu are grasping the chance to live their lives as normally as possible.