Facing the future bravely - together

INDIA • Sheroes Hangout, with its tasteful decor and lively graffiti, is tucked away between some nondescript eateries, across from a five-star luxury hotel.

In Agra, famous as the city of the Taj Mahal, the cafe is on the map for a unique reason: It is run by women who have survived acid attacks.

Opened in 2014, Sheroes now has branches in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, and Udaipur, Rajasthan.

Born out of the Stop Acid Attacks campaign launched in 2013, it was opened as a self-sustaining system for survivors.

Mr Alok Dixit, founder of the online campaign to bring together survivors, said: "Most are in the age group of 16 to 28 and are dependent on their families."

Till a few years ago, cafe worker Rupa avoided talking to people, using a long scarf to hide her face. It was mutilated by corrosive acid thrown on her when she was 15, allegedly by her stepmother and some men, while she was asleep.

But now, she said: "I don't care any more about what people think or when they stare at me. It is those who attacked me who should hide their faces."

India's Home Affairs Ministry said 147 women suffered acid attacks in 2015, but many attacks go unreported.

Laws have been passed to make the crime punishable with a minimum of 10 years in jail, and to give victims the right to financial support. Curbs have also been set to make it harder to buy acid over the counter.

In spite of this, attacks continue.

The donation-only cafe is a draw for foreign tourists and makes a profit almost throughout the year, said its manager.

Suzanne, a Canadian visitor, wiped tears away after watching a documentary about Sheroes that is shown in the cafe.

"I can't even imagine the horrible experience these women have gone through but it is empowering to see their strength," she said.

VIDEO: http://str.sg/4bbA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2017, with the headline 'Facing the future bravely - together'. Subscribe