On my trip to India last year with The Solo Female Traveler's Network, one of the excursions included a visit to Sheroes Hangout, a cafe run by female acid attack survivors in the city Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Ironically, it took place on March 8th, International Women's Day.
The cafe opened in 2014 by the Chhanv Foundation, a non-profit organization in India, giving victims an opportunity to empower themselves through a "pay what you want" restaurant, where they serve typical Indian dishes such as biryanis, curries and masalas as well as some western fare. While waiting for your food, a mini documentary style video is played on repeat to customers educating them on heinous history of each of the female employees.
I had read about Sheroes on various websites prior to my arrival, but it was hard for me to wrap my head around what this place truly was. While this unassuming little cafe tucked away on a dusty street in Agra has received attention from the media throughout the world, so many people still have no idea this place even exists. Even more, they have no idea what an acid attack is...or that it happens almost every single day in many developing countries around the world, especially in India, where on average, there are an estimated 2-300 attacked committed each year. Many attacks go unreported due to the shame the girl and her family feel and the fear of being attacked again.
An acid attack is exactly what it sounds like; the violent act of someone (usually a man) literally throwing acid or a corrosive substance onto the face and body of someone else with the intention to disfigure or torture their victim (usually a woman). The perpetrator's motivation is typically spurred on by a personal conflict, sexual jealousy or rejection of sexual advances and proposals of marriage.
A majority of these victims come from poor families. Once a woman survives an acid attack - many of them are attacked by their own husbands even - they are forced to live the rest of their lives out as outcasts with little to no means to support themselves or their children.
In full transparency, when I arrived at the cafe, I was famished after early morning tours of the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. I was ecstatic to see French fries and a chocolate shake on the menu. Even though the food took a while to make its way to our table, my attention was not on my growling stomach, but on the warmth and hospitality these beautiful ladies showered us with. These women define themselves as "fighters" and wear their chemical burns as badges of courage. The cafe serves as a safe, support system that enables them to make a living and a life.
Shabnam, who took my food order, refused the advances of her boss when she was only 15 and he ended up retaliating with acid. Neetu, who sold me my Sheroes Hangout t-shirt that says "My Beauty Is My Smile", was attacked with acid by her own father when she was three years old. He also attacked her mother and baby sister, who succumbed to the injuries the acid had caused her.
Our tour group lingered around the cafe for at least two hours, eating, chatting with the girls and learning about their business. We took selfies, bogged down our packs with merch and headed off to our next destination...mehndi tattoos.
Little did anyone know that shortly after, the country would go into lockdown and Sheroes Hangout would close because of the pandemic. The acid attack survivors whose livelihoods depended on the cafe, were immediately fraught with peril.
To date, the Cafe has been closed. The Chhanv Foundation and its community of acid attack survivors have been existing in a state of uncertainty ever since. Through the Indian crowdfunding site Milaap, they were able to set up a fundraising campaign to ensure a survival amount of funds for the next six months for the beneficiaries.
Other than financial help for the survivors, Milaap also organized many virtual mental health counseling sessions and yoga sessions to keep these women mentally and physically fit, as well as providing various classes and workshops.
And to provide long term sustainability to the organization, A Gift Story was created - an online retail venture that allows the Sheroes Hangout women the opportunity to sell thoughtfully created gifts.
Vaccines are slowly making their way around the world and government guidelines are changing to gradually allow operations to start up again. But like everything, it will take time for Sheroes Hangout and its beautiful women to get back to the place they were before the pandemic hit.
Milaap crowdfunding campaign has yet to meet its latest goal, but it still as 52 days to go. If you want to do something truly meaningful on International Women's Day this year, help these incredibly brave and resilient women today.
You can learn more about Sheroes Hangout by visiting their Instagram page here.