Agra, India, the home of one of the largest and extravagant symbols of love, The Taj Mahal. Most travellers avoid spending the night in this part of India’s golden triangle, given that there is almost nothing to do.
Recently I spent six days in Agra, a fact that astonishes other travellers. The reason – Sheroes Hangout. A local hangout for the rehabilitation and empowerment of acid attack survivors.
The cafe walls are dressed in campaign posters, handicrafts the women have designed as well as a library covering an entire wall which hosts feminist literature. The space is not somewhere to eat and run, instead, the women have turned this space into a readers cafe, activism hub, and art exhibition.
As the cafe starts to fill up, I move myself to a small corner table to make room for other groups. As I wait for my food, a young woman approaches and we share the table. She introduces herself as Laxmi, and like most Indians, apologises for her poor English, despite her being eloquent and easy to understand.
As it turns out, Laxmi is the brand ambassador for the #StopAcidAttacks campaign. The campaign is funded through Chhanv, an NGO dedicated to funding medical, legal, financial and rehabilitation support to acid attack survivors.
‘I was attacked at just 16 years old, while on a shopping trip.’ Laxmi recounts her story, calm and clearly filled with courage.
‘It was the middle of the day. There were many people around. After the acid was thrown on my face, I screamed for help. No one came to my side.’
Laxmi’s attacker was known to her. In her village South of Dehli, a man had developed an interest for her. He was 32. Laxmi simply did not respond to a text message from him, in which he said ‘I love you’. Days later, he permanently disfigured Laxmi.
Her attacker was out of jail within a month. His life resumed as normal.
For Laxmi, she would live with the scars of this assault for the rest of her life. It would take 10 weeks until Laxmi was able to even see herself, and the effects the attack had.
Given the shame attached to acid attacks, society was not kind to Laxmi. For the next 8 years, Laxmi was housebound. She faced daily discrimination in her community, shoved to the shadows of society. Laxmi tried to get her life back to normal, once recovered from over 7 surgeries. However, every employer she approached rejected her, worried she would scare customers.
Now 26, Laxmi is a new mother, loving partner, fashion model, tv presenter, advocate and tireless campaigner. Her story made possible by organisations such as Chhanv, which offered her employment and allowed her independence and identity to be repaired. Today, Laxmi stands tall with a confidence that no brutality could conquer. In 2014, Laxmi was awarded the International Woman of Courage Award by Michelle Obama.
As I finish off my dessert, I scroll through their campaign page, which shares the story of many survivors. However, very close to the top is a photo of Australia’s own Turia Pitt, who was burnt in an ultra marathon in 2011. ‘She is a very inspirational woman. Very strong. Someone I really hope to meet one day’. Says Laxmi.
Many survivors are in the cafe, vibratious to share their stories of strength. You can see that now these women are filled with hope and excitmemt as their dreams once burnt away begin to shine once more. Gita, who had always dreamed of becoming a chef, now adorns her special chef uniform. Gita was burnt by her husband. Rupa, who serves every dish with a contagious smile, dreamed of being a designer, and now creates many of the pieces for sale. Rupa was attacked by her step-mother. As I chat to many of the women, their attacks become more and more complex, from cousins, colleagues, angry customs to complete strangers. As acid could be purchased in most corner stores, the chemical was used as a permanent solution to solve casual conflicts.
Acid attacks are not unique to women. They are also not unique to India, or Asia. Although Pakistan and India are where the leading statistics remain, attacks in the UK are also on the rise. Luckily, some positive changes are happening around the world, including India, to inflict proper justice and punishment and to prevent the sale of harmful chemicals that can be used for such attacks. In 2013, India added new sections to the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, which treats an acid attack as a stand-alone offense. It now stipulates a minimum imprisonment of 10 years for the culprit.
You can get behind the #StopAcidAttacks here: Stop Acid Attacks Facebook
And make sure to visit Sheroes during your visit to the Taj Mahal!