Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically encouraged male domination over women and justified the use of violence to keep women in their places.

– Acid Survivors Foundation of India

Acid attacks against women have become a severe problem in India. Women in many other countries have also been subject to acid attacks. Turkey, Iran, Cambodia, and Colombia are among them, as are the United Kingdom, and, yes, even the United States.

Acid attacks can be fatal. Hydrochloric and sulfuric acid, the compounds most commonly used in such attacks, cause skin and other organ tissue to melt. Bones are exposed and often partially, and sometimes even completely, dissolved. Contact with the eyes causes blindness. Eyelids, lips, ears, and noses can be instantly melted.

The victims who do survive are often considered to be the “unlucky” ones. They must give up their work, school, and public lives altogether and live secluded lives in their homes. Some are even spurned from their homes and forced to live on the streets. They become not only disabled, but outcasts. “People avoid us,” says one such victim. That’s not even considering the pain of the attack and numerous medical procedures they must endure.

According to data collected by Stop Acid Attacks (“SAA”), more than 70% of acid attack victims in India are women and more than half of those women are attacked by spurned lovers. A study of Indian Government Data by the Times of India determined most acid attacks occurred in more “patriarchal societies” like those in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, and Bihar.

“States in the Northeast, where several societies are matriarchal and women make a large chunk of the workforce, have nil to single digit cases of acid attacks. Among larger states, Tamil Nadu has one of the best records with just one case in the past three years,” the Times reported.

According to Acid Survivors Foundation of India (“ASFI”), the main motives of acid attackers are:

Family disputes; domestic violence; relationship conflicts;
Refusal of indecent proposals or unacceptable propositions;
Vengefulness and status jealousy;
Suspicion of infidelity;
Sex crimes, rape, and sodomy.

Despite new laws and orders by the Indian Apex Court for states and territories to regulate and closely monitor the sale of acid, the number of acid attacks in the country have sharply risen over the past few years. It is estimated that there were 106 such assaults reported in 2012 and 116 in 2013. However, those are only estimates. Prior to the passage of Penal Code Sections 326A and 326B in 2013, all acid attacks were lumped under the category of “attempted murder” and were not considered distinct crimes. In 2014, the first year in which the new laws went into effect, there were over 349 acid attack cases reported throughout the country. Analyses performed by ASFI concluded that in any given year, there are anywhere between 100 to 500 acid attacks reported in the country. But these numbers only consider “reported” cases. The Indian National Crime Records Bureau estimates that there are actually more than 1,000 such attacks in the country each year, with more than half not reported due to the potential shame it could cause the victim’s family.

Yet some acid attack victims refuse to become outcasts or fear bringing shame upon their families. In Uttar Pradesh, just a stone’s throw from the Taj Mahal in the city of Agra, five such women, with the help of SAA, are making a stand not only against the sharp rise in acid attacks and all violence against women, but for themselves. Ritu Saini, Chanchal Kumari, Neetu Mahor, Gita Mahor, and Rupa (like a Brazilian soccer player, she goes by one name), are all victims of acid attacks. Instead of staying at home or only occasionally venturing out with their scarred faces and bodies wrapped in scarves so their injuries cannot be seen by the public, they go to work most every day, selling coffee and snacks at Sheroes’ Hangout, their disfigured faces in full view of their customers.

Sheroes' Hangout

Sheroes’ Hangout

Sheroes’ opened in 2014 as a crowd-funded project of SAA. The prices at the cafe are “pay as you wish,” and all proceeds from sales go to help the rehabilitation of victims of acid violence in India. All five of the women who work at and manage Sheroes’ lived secluded lives for several years before discovering SAA via Facebook.

As SAA founder Alok Doxit told journalist Priti Salian about the project, “Acid attack survivors’ lives become even more traumatic when they start facing rejection from society due to their disfigured faces. They need someone to hold their hand and restore their self-confidence.”

Visitors to the cafe come from all over the world. They go to Sheroes not only for coffee and snacks, but to talk to the five women who work there.

Sheroes’ has its share of local regulars and visitors from other parts of India, too.

“I was exhilarated the first time a group of Indian tourists who visited the café told me how much they appreciate my courage,” 22-year-old Rupa reported.

But it’s not just the women who work at Sheroes’ who benefit from the operation.

According to Ms. Kumari, visitors go to Sheroes’ to see how acid attack survivors are coping with their lives.

Shikha Singh, a 20-year-old fashion design student is a regular customer who visits the Hangout at least once a week. She says she never would have known about the reality behind acid attack survivors had she not met the women at Sheroes’.

“It is amazing the way they are working to fulfill their dreams despite the hurdles,” she says, “I now prefer to spend on Sheroes’ Hangout rather than a McDonald’s or KFC. At least I’m sure the money will be used for a good cause.”