Victims To Victors: Real Life SHEROES
Every obstacle is a stepping stone to success; a learning graph to achieving of goals. Obstacles that need one to be determined or persevere. ‘Never give up’ is the mantra.
What if those setbacks aren’t something you ever imagined in your most horrific nightmares? What if a physical act of violence, perpetrated by another human being, is the obstacle you face - one that rocks the very foundation of your existence, shakes your belief in humanity, and renders you incapable of functioning at all?
An acid attack is one such form of violence that scars not only the superficial skin but the deepest layers of one’s soul, inflicting wounds that will never heal.
I am surrounded by such women at the Sheroes Hangouts, a café run by the Chhanv Foundation (an NGO co-founded by Ms. Laxmi who herself is an acid attack survivor).
Laxmi refused to bow down to ‘fate’. She spearheaded a historical campaign that led to amendment in laws like recognizing acid attacks as a heinous crime and according it ‘non-bailable’ status. Availability of acid without a proper license was restricted too. In 2013, ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ was initiated.
Counselling, Peer Support, Medical assistance are only some of the measures undertaken here to help these women rebuild not just their faces but also their lives. In future, the focus isn’t on revenues and profits but activities to sensitize people against such crimes. It is for this reason that the Cafes follow a ‘pay as you like’ policy.
“Pay as you wish is effective in driving home the point that the focus isn’t on earning profits but on supporting the women. They are earning their own livelihood by working here. It instills a sense of self-worth and financial independence,” says Parth Sarthi, Resource Manager of Chhanv Foundation. This prompts me to wonder if the crime is prevalent in certain strata of society.
“No,” says Parth. “Wherever, because of a disfigured face, the victim will suffer discrimination, will be stigmatized, there the incidents of acid violence will be more. Just in 2017, we have come across cases that have happened in villages as well as in cities like Noida, Ludhiana, Kolkata, etc.”
This leads to further questions that may not even have answers. What could be the cause for such crimes? Why does the law treat it differently than similar crimes like murder? “An acid attack is classified as ‘intention not to kill,” explains Parth.
Indeed, the perpetrator only intends to ruin the life of the victim while leaving them alive to bear the brunt of it. And for that reason alone, it cannot be considered a crime equivalent to murder. Ironically, even though here the victim lives they often wish for death unto themselves. It’s an existence that is bereft of opportunities otherwise available – career, marriage, social life,” agrees Parth.
What is even more horrifying that in some cases the attackers are family members. In all cases, the attackers were known to the victims.
A mother of two, Geeta haltingly shares how her husband and her in-laws were angry at her for not giving birth to a male child. Late one night, under the influence of alcohol and assurance from his parents, he threw acid on her and their two daughters. At first, she thought it was hot water but the pain wouldn’t subside. That is when Geeta realized it wasn’t just hot water. With her daughters in tow, she rushed to the police station. Soon after she came to Agra, when a passer-by recommended she meet Laxmi.
Twenty-four year old Roopa too manages to narrate her story with great difficulty. “My step-mother hated me and wanted to kill me. I was 14, when my grandparents passed away in 2007. After their demise, I was left alone. With no one to protect or support me, she had a clear coast to execute her plan. One night as I was asleep, she poured acid over my face.”
A resilient Ruquyya readily talks about the attack. “What I suffered was worse, now I’m over it,” she states matter-of-factly. She was all of 15 years when her attacker - her sister’s brother-in-law - threw acid on her for refusing to marry him. Madhu’s attacker was a spurned suitor too. “One sided love,” she sighs. “I had no interest in him.”
If seeking a job was earlier difficult for these illiterate women, after the acid attack it became near impossible.
“I used to be turned away with false promises,” Madhu shares. She feared an existence of poverty and hunger. “They didn’t offer me a job because of my face,” she says knowingly.
They probably have fond memories of their childhood, I assume. But it is not so.
“The less said the better,” says Roopa. Madhu too swiftly side-steps the topic, instead talking about her desire to pursue studies and her ambition to be a police inspector. “I even appeared for interviews but lost out for being short,” she laughs. Hope. Dreams. Hobbies. These are all words these women don’t understand.
Roopa says, ‘I don’t know what I want in life.’ The mention of the word ‘hobby’ puts her in doubt until a colleague mentions Badminton. Her face lights up. “And Carrom, too,” she giggles. Geeta refuses to even entertain such a question. “My daughter lost one eye in the attack. My only concern is to restore her sight.”
While words like hope and ambition are alien, words like Family and Friends have taken on a new meaning here. The staff of Sheroes Hangouts and the team at Chhanv Foundation is family. Friends are the regular customers and tourists who frequent the café.
Stop Acid Attacks has begun to garner a lot of interest since 2014. With increased awareness more customers throng the Cafes. The government too pitches in by providing land and monetary assistance. With all the government funding and international media attention, one could be forgiven for mistakenly assuming they have it easy with funds and resources. The challenges are manifold.
“Running a café is one thing but a campaign needs appreciable amount of funds. Unfortunately, people, and even companies, only want to contribute to the acid attack survivor, that too for one particular aspect of recovery only,” Parth says.
Other challenges like disinterested work-force, lack of funds for research, low salaries that are prevalent in the nonprofit sector rear their ugly head here too. It is because of these challenges that even though Stop Acid Attacks campaign has been instrumental in amendment of laws and implementation of policies like government compensation, free treatment, Chhanv Foundation often struggles to make an impact.
The road to recovery for these survivors is long and painful. It is for this reason that the foundation focuses on not just medical treatments but also personality development. Heavy costs are incurred -medical treatment, legal fees, family and victim counselling, salaries for their work at the café, etc. Apart from all this, funds are also required for mass campaigning on ground level to sensitize people against acid violence.
The purpose isn’t just to provide a centre for rehabilitation for these women. Their efforts at understanding the crimes and the actions of the perpetrators is aimed at bringing an exemplary model into existence, where people in large masses must come to know about the aftermath of acid attack meeting such victims.
“No matter how many acid attack cases we help, the cases are still happening. Activism is the only way to attain a better future but utterly challenging at the same time. Not many people seem to have patience for that. They tend to equate our success with the number of acid attack survivors we benefit,” continues Parth.
What if these women ever came face-to-face with their attacker? ‘She may try to kill me again,’ shudders Roopa.
Geeta stays with her husband but is fearless. “I have my Sheroes family on my side now. On days when my husband drinks too much, and we fear that he may attack us again, all we have to do is ring up Alok Bhaiyya (Co-founder of Chhanv Foundation and one of the people spearheading the Stop Acid Attacks campaign).”
The past may have been scarred but the future offers a new beginning for these women. Geeta thinks it is a new lease of life for her and her daughter. The worst is over, she says. She envisages her future only with Sheroes. “Earlier we had no job, no source of earning. But now, whatever I am it’s because of Sheroes.”
The attacker may have succeeded in their actions but they are defeated in intent. For these survivors are victims no more. They are victors in the true sense, as is evident in their hopeful smiles and daring attitude.
“I want to thank him,” Madhu says of her attacker. “I wouldn’t have had this life, this job at Sheroes, had I been normal.” ‘I found the confidence to not cover my face anymore,’ smiles Roopa. ‘I can step out without feeling ashamed anymore.’
Madhu wishes to provide a better life to her children. It is then that I realize they are not any different from us. Hope. Future. Dreams. Hobbies. Success. These are all words they may struggle to discuss at length about. But they understand Respect, Love, Honour, Dignity.