I met a group of young women acid attack survivors who live together in Delhi’s Noida area. These women have not only endured pain but have faced rejection and humiliation from the public and their own families after they were attacked with acid. Their determination and efforts to rebuild their lives are impressive.
Together these girls support each other in their tough times and run a small cafe. This cafe is not only a business but a ray of hope for those acid attack survivors who have lost the will to live and have hidden themselves behind closed doors. These girls are living examples of courage and perseverance. Despite all the odds they are working hard to earn a living and move on in life.
The cafe is the brainchild of the Noida-based Chhanv Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) working for the welfare of acid attack survivors. The NGO came up with the idea of opening a Sheroes cafe to be run by acid attack survivors. Chhanv opened its first cafe for acid attack survivors in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, in 2014. Another was launched in Lucknow in addition to the recent one in Noida.
At the Noida cafe, I saw a young woman Seema Rajput clearing the balance of a customer at the cash counter. She was composed and greeted people with a smile. As I approached her for a conversation she requested another young woman to take charge of the counter, offered me a chair and we sat down to chat. It was not easy for her to recollect the memories of the incident but she was determined to highlight how two men threw acid at her and how she went through multiple surgeries before joining the cafe.
“I joined the cafe in May 2022,” Seema said. “I work here and live with other survivors. I was attacked by my brother’s friend just outside my home in Akbarpura, Faizabad. My brother had an affair with one of his friend’s relatives. Because of this both of them would get into regular fights. A day before the attack on me, my brother’s friend told him that he would now ruin his family.”
She continued: “It happened in 2016. I had just turned 18. I remember it was 6am. I was outside the house. Suddenly a car appeared in front of me and splashed me with acid. My whole face started to burn. I rushed back towards my home and fell down at the main door. I shouted, ‘mother, mother, give me water.’ When she came to check on me, my face started to melt.
“Someone said, ‘she has been attacked with acid.’ I do not recollect anything after that. When I regained consciousness, I was in hospital where I spent the next eight miserable months and went through 12 surgeries over the years. Life after an attack is difficult. Even the family gets tired of the regular treatments and health issues. Similar things happened to me. I finally left home and joined the cafe to work. Now this is my family. We fight, eat, laugh and cry but stay together.”
Acid attacks are a form of gender-based violence. It is an expression of control over the bodies of women and girls, aimed at silencing and controlling women. This constitutes a hidden form of violence that often goes unnoticed and the true number of horrific attacks taking place does not come to light. In India, 80% of the attacks are against women and independent agencies estimate that 60% of them go unreported.
Globally, there are approximately 1,500 attacks a year and these statistics suggest that they are predominantly perpetrated by men as a result of shame, loss of face or loss of honor. The first recorded acid attack in India was in 1982 and the use of acid as a weapon began to rise in many developing nations, particularly in South Asia.
Most survivors of the attacks are women and girls. The most common reasons for these crimes are the refusal of marriage, the denial of sex, the sexual rejection of men and boys and family rivalry.
Seema was a victim of a dispute between families. “It was not my fault,” she said. “Why did he target me even if both friends got into conflict? It ruined not only my face but my life forever.
“I only have one regret. The person who attacked me was jailed for some time and then released on bail but the person who hired him for the attack was never convicted for any crime. I am unable to come to terms with that and perhaps never will.”
In India, incidents often capture the headlines but there was no separate legislation to deal with acid attacks before the passing of The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act in 2013. The same year an Indian high court ruling banned over-the-counter sales of acid to the public and said potential buyers would require a government-approved identity document and need to provide a valid reason for purchase. Sellers are obliged to retain a record of all sales.
The landmark law came after a campaign led by Laxmi Agarwal, a woman from Delhi who was badly burned in an attack in 2005. The campaign won several gains for survivors, including access to rehabilitation.
Sufiya Bano from Badayun, Uttar Pradesh, works in the cafe. Her cousin’s brother wanted to marry her and attacked the 24-year-old in 2004 when Sufiya refused his proposal. Sufiya had to endure eight surgeries.
“We used to live in the same house and he attacked me on the lawn,” Sufiya said. “He stood in front of me and when I asked what was wrong with him, he said, ‘You are too proud of your beauty, enjoy now.’ He threw it in my face and I started to shout and cry. I wanted to put my face in water. I saw the tank and opened the tap and fell unconscious. I was shifted to a hospital where I was admitted for two months. After a lot of struggle, we filed the case and he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment but last year on 15 August he was released.”
Although there are laws to deal with such heinous crimes, the conviction rate in these cases is low. According to National Crime Records Bureau data, there were 150 similar incidents in 2019, 105 in 2020 and 102 in 2021. Two years ago, the charge-sheet rate for acid attacks was 89% with a 20% conviction rate. The sale of acid has continued, with major online markets like Flipkart selling it online without any regulation.
For Alok Dixit, the founder of Chhanv, it was important to make these survivors self-reliant. “In these cases a lot of focus is on punishing the perpetrator,” he said. “There are stringent laws, compensation and rehabilitation for survivors but that’s still not enough. To live with dignity and earn a livelihood fights the main aim of attackers who want to see the victims live in pain.”