By Sakshi Agarwal
This is a café that will overwhelm not only your taste buds, but your heart as well. The joint effort of a team of social entrepreneurs along with acid-attack victim and dynamic activist Laxmi Dixit’s NGO, Chhanv Foundation, Sheroes Hangout was set up in Agra with the aim to generate employment for victims of acid attack.
The restaurant now has two outlets in Uttar Pradesh, the state known for the highest number of acid attacks in the past decade, with 80 percent victims being women. Most of these women were attacked by violent domestic partners or men whose advances they had spurned.
The cafés in Agra and Lucknow employ eight and 12 such survivors, respectively, and serve vegetarian food. The women work a variety of jobs, from the front-desk to the kitchen. Apart from them, there are 15 other members running these lively cafés.
Another extraordinary thing about the café is their “Pay As You Please” policy. While Lucknow has fixed rates, the menu in Agra doesn’t mention prices. Guests are welcome to pay as they see fit.
Initially, the founding members of the ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ campaign, including Laxmi and journalist turned activist Alok Dixit, toyed with the idea of using acid-attack survivor Rupa’s talent of tailoring to set up a boutique.
But soon after, they met mother-daughter duo Geeta and Neetu, who were living in abysmal socio-economic conditions in Agra. “It was vital to raise their standard of living at the earliest, but stitching can’t be taught in a day,” explains spokesperson Abhay Singh.
And that is how the idea of a café was born, driven by the sole motive of ease of employability. With various kinds of roles on offer, they wouldn’t have to turn away any survivor who turned up at their door. Besides salaries, the café also takes care of its employees’ medical and commuting expenses, and provides accommodation, if needed, near the café itself.
The café enables the organisation to raise awareness about the issue of acid attacks and sensitise people to the plight of victims who are left disfigured and disabled for life. Some of the victims are married, or have children, and perhaps, when you visit the café, you’ll see their tiny tots jumping around.
Sheroes (she + heroes) are exactly what these women are. As one of them tell us, working here is not just a source of income for them. Having lived through immense personal tragedy, the job has taught them valuable social skills, dealing with people from all parts of the world (they even had Miss Universe visit them from UK), and helped them build confidence and self-worth.
Their work is equally important for society: it forces us to question traditional notions of beauty, while putting a firm spotlight on the problem of patriarchy and gender violence especially in the Hindi belt of India where acid attacks are highest.
Since the compensation provided by the government to victims of acid attack is meagre, the organisation welcomes donations to help rehabilitate survivors. Other campaigns run by Chhanv include “Donate a Face” and the Sheroes calendar.