Every year, there are hundreds of cases of a very specific type of violence against girls and women in India: acid attacks. In most instances, a man seeking to punish a woman or girl for whatever reason throws acid at her, causing pain, scarring, and disfigurement. Even worse, survivors of these attack are often treated as outcasts. The Chhanv Foundation works to help survivors realise that their lives are not over — by employing them in their three cafés.
The Chhanv Foundation was started in 2014, a year after the launch of the nationwide campaign “Stop Acid Attacks”. The foundation opened its first café for victims of the attacks in December 2014, in the city of Agra. Two other cafés opened on March 8 and September 19, 2016, in Lucknow (in the state of Uttar Pradesh) and Udaipur (in Rajasthan). Currently, 20 women between the ages of 17 and 35 work in these establishments.
“My husband attacked me beecause I had only given birth to daughters”
I got married in Lucknow in 1998. Right from the beginning, my husband was violent towards me. In the years that followed, we had five daughters together — but my husband and his family were not happy about it because they wanted me to give birth to a boy. When I became pregnant with our sixth child, my husband forced me to do a test to determine the baby’s sex. But I dug my heels in and refused.
One night, my husband came home while I was cooking dinner. I remember very clearly: it was July 24, 2013. We fought and he beat me again. Then, he left. When he came back, he had acid, which he threw on my private parts. Three weeks later, he was condemned to 17 years in prison.
After the attack, I went to the hospital. At that time, the future seemed dark. I had lost all hope. However, some time after the attack, members of the Chhanv Foundation came to see me to tell me about their activities [Editor’s note: There is a team at the foundation that is tasked with going out and meeting victims, especially those in rural villages]. When I got out of the hospital, I decided to seek out their assistance. Through the Chhanv Foundation, I got a job at the Lucknow Café, where I have been working since the very day it opened in March 2016.
After the attack, Reshma gave birth to a baby boy.
“When I started at this café, I felt like I had a second chance”
At the café, I work as a kitchen manager. I earn 13,000 rupees a month [equivalent to 184 euros per month].
I currently live in a hotel that is paid for by the Uttar Pradesh local government. The Chhanv Foundation provides me with a daily shuttle from home to the café and back again.
When I started at this café, I felt like life had given me a second chance. Working here gives me energy. I like my colleagues and what I do there. Now, I’m happy with the life I have.
Unfortunately, my husband was let out on parole in October 2016. I have filed to have the case re-examined in court.
Like Reshma, the women who work in these cafés are paid with the money earned by selling drinks and food. They also have free housing and receive aid for their medical bills.
"The women who work in these cafés get their dignity back”
The women who work in these cafés get their dignity back. They also learn a lot. We often enrol them in some kind of professional training programme on the side.
Most of them never imagined that one day they would work in a café. For those women who come from small villages, it’s often a culture shock at first.
We used a crowdfunding initiative to raise enough money to open the café in Agra, and the state of Uttar Pradesh gave us the money to open the café in Lucknow. In Udaipur, a local business lent us the space in a shopping centre to open a café. But we are still looking for funds to help these cafés continue to operate. We are constantly looking for ideas to make these three cafés financially viable.
We need to stop acid attacks once and for all. These are hate crimes and they take a brutal physical, social and economic toll on the victims. Most of the time, the attackers aim the acid at the victim’s face, disfiguring it permanently. Many Indian states don’t finance the many surgeries that these victims need after an attack. Some of these states don’t even have adequate hospitals to perform them in.
Survivors also face widespread discrimination. Worst of all, their family often gives up hope on them.
According to the foundation, it is hard to track if there has been an increase in the number of acid attacks because the National Crime Record Bureau has only been recording the numbers of acid attacks since 2013, the year when the Penal Code mentioned this crime for the first time.
This text also says that attackers would face life in prison. In the past few years, about 200 and 300 attacks per year have been reported. However, certain activists estimate that the numbers are probably grossly underreported.