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Acid Attack Survivors: How to Empower them?

Ever wondered how you can play a crucial role in rehabilitating survivors of social issues such as acid attacks? How instead of preaching can you create an environment of acceptance? What lessons do we learn while working to uplift and empower others? How can each one of us make a big difference in the lives of others? If all these questions make sense to you and you often find yourself pondering about. Then this article will help you sketch how you can also make a difference and gives you a glimpse of a life of acid attack survivors.

In a candid telephonic conversation, Alok Dixit, founder of Chhav Foundation dived into the different aspects of rehabilitating acid attack victims.

We learn and We Grow: The Power is to Empower Others

When we started the acid attack wasn’t even under any disability, it was beyond my imagination to keep it under any disability. Acid attack is a result of violence, there are many violence survivors and the disability is the result of the violence. They are not just the victims of acid attacks but also violence.

As you are asking about the initial challenges, I would say that our lack of understanding of not considering it as a disability or a disability cause would be the foremost mistake. So, when the government added it under the types of disability, we could envision it from a different perspective. I would say that if we minus the violence from it, it is a disability only.

We now approach the issue differently. Our view of addressing the whole issue has broadened. At which, we met a lot of survivors who were also blind, or had low vision, or loco-motor disability. What I am trying to say is that we have just started seeing the whole issue as a disability cause. “Imandari se karu toh, yeh notion hi nahi tha kabhi, aur humne kabhi iss baat ko appreciate bhi nahi kiya initially jab isko 2016 mai iss tarah se joda gaya.”

We are asking for rehabilitation from the government since the ones who are crime victims by law are also the responsibility of the state government. The states have put them in the category of disability to rehabilitate them. Initially, we didn’t find it very logical but there were a lot of survivors who were facing disability, so we thought instead of protesting against it we should see it as an opportunity to benefit from the provisions in the disability laws.

For example, by keeping acid attack victims in the disability category, they can now benefit from the quote given in government jobs, but nobody has availed it so far. But they can avail it if they want to. “Ek rasta hai.”

So I would say that it was never our vision to put acid attacks in the disabled category and rehabilitate the survivors. Definitely, there are benefits but it is not the solution. “Solutions yahan se nahi aata hai.”

What is the solution then?

We saw it as acid violence. The larger issues such as the easy availability of acid, and its casual and easy usage and then further the gaps in terms of the laws related to acid attacks needed attention too. “Kanooni taur par bhi, acid attack bahut halki samasya ki tarah dekha ja raha tha.” We focused more on this aspect of acid attack in the country. We advocated having proper laws for the issues. If you look at the previous orders of the court, there is just six months or one year of punishment. “326 bahut hi generic dhara thi.” Kisi par chai bhi phek diya wo bhi 326 mai aata tha, kisi peh acid phek diya who bhi 326 peh aata tha.”

Society was devoid of the idea of how damaging an acid attack could be. We were focusing more on that, the disability clause definitely opens doors of many schemes as the government is not putting efforts to rehabilitate the victims till now otherwise. Acid attack is very different from other disabilities.

How is acid attack different from other disabilities?

See, you will find disability in acid attack victims as well, but there comes conditioning of the disability. By conditioning I mean, there are some people who are disabled by birth, some are disabled due to some unfortunate accident. However, acid attack survivors become disabled as a result of crime which itself is a horrifying and damaging experience in itself. There are numerous challenges. The person suddenly becomes blind with it. There is also a case to fight and seek justice. Their mentality is beyond our understanding. I am not comparing any disabilities. There are numerous layers to it.

However, we are trying to create a space in society which is inclusive and offers equal opportunities to them.

Society and Acid Attack Victims

We have also created a society around us. For example, there are survivors who are working in Sheroes Café in Lucknow. They have changed so much. “Unko apne chehre se ek lag tarah se pyar ho gaya hai.” For example, recently we went to Jaipur for an event, we were not official dignitaries but we just went to explore as we were free after work. So, there were two survivors with us. They were wearing masks initially, but after the event, when we were strolling around, they removed their masks. What I am trying to say here is that they were not hesitant in showing their face. They removed their masks themselves, I was just standing there observing them. Initially, nobody recognized them, however, when they removed their mask, people recognized them, clicked photos and interacted with them. They were more comfortable without the mask, proudly accepting themselves.

However, there is a completely different scenario for the ones who are still at home and not affiliated with any kind of project or organization. They lack self-confidence, they usually hide their face. And then there is this small society where you would see people empathetic towards the survivors, interacting and connecting with them. However, largely, the reality is that only people around you would make you uncomfortable. This is not just the problem of acid attack survivors but also the burns survivors or I would say this it is the problem for the whole of the disabled community.

The director of our organization is a wheelchair user, he says how often you notice a wheelchair user in a wedding, very rarely, he says that “pehle hum bhi nahi jate the, par ab hum jaane lage hai.”

So, at large, the prejudices around disability still prevail but there also exists a society which has given them space to outgrow their disability and encourage them to be confident about their face.

How are you creating an alternate society to help them gain self-confidence?

It is a very interesting process actually. I will give you the example of the two cafes we work in, one is Lucknow’s Sheroes which is very popular, another one is in Agra. A lot of people come to these cafes, the customers or the people don’t pity them. We have created such an atmosphere, or I would say we have campaigned, and are affiliated with celebrities and leaders who come and appreciate them for their courage and work, it creates a very positive and respectful environment for them also. The feedback and interaction with people give them the confidence of self-acceptance. ‘

For example, there are a lot of survivors who first when joined Sheroes used to keep their faces uncovered in the café, but as soon as they would reach their locality they would again cover their face. In fact, their parents would ask them to cover their faces and say that their younger sisters will not get married otherwise. “Unko apne mohallah mai apne mummy papa se hi confidence nahi hai.”

You would see the difference, when you give a space where they can feel confident, they have no problem with their face. It is not just about preaching; it is about creating such an environment.

Before we launched Sheroes café it was very difficult for me to convince them to be confident and not cover their faces all the time. You see it is a process, you don’t have to tell them to be confident, you have to give them an environment so that they can feel confident. Initially, we had to push them to go for an interview and convince them to try new jobs. Now, we just send them to the cafes, where they observe the other survivors and learn themselves.

Sheroes: A cafe of Empowerment

Honestly, the biggest form of empowerment that my team and I firmly believe in is financial empowerment. Probably, 75% of the work gets done, when you instil the confidence in a person that they can earn themselves. That they can stand on their own feet and are not dependent on anyone. This is also my personal learning, I have seen humongous changes in a person after she/he becomes financially independent.

Sheroes doesn’t offer jobs to all the survivors, we give jobs to survivors who are homeless or are victims of crime at home only. So when they come here, they learn various skills. Sheroes is a café, so they learn to host the guest, management, front desk, accounting, data work, etc. And when they start working here they get a space to interact with other survivors, a space to learn and grow and ultimately to be financially independent.

Now, many of them earn enough to support their families and the studies of their younger siblings. This also changes their personality. “Pehle toh unka se hota nahi nahi tha family affairs mai, but kaise unka se badal jata hai jab woh khud kamane lag jate hai.” “Wo log bhi hai jinhe phele ghar ke events mai sideline kar diya jaata tha, yeh keh dete thhe ghar par hi raho,” now they are the leaders of the house, they interfere in every small and big decision of their family matters. This is the big difference we have seen. Rest everything can be philosophy but this is the practical thing I am telling you.

The Larger Picture

There is a double problem with acid attack victims. The majority of the survivors are from a poor economic background. The victims and also the criminals are usually from poor economic and educational backgrounds. It is the case with 90% of the survivors. So, when you have to rehabilitate them, it becomes really tough. At Agra, we are even teaching ABCD to the survivors. We taught them how to write. “10 survivors mai se sirf ek graduate hai, kahi toh kabhi school hi nahi gaye huye hai, bas kuch logo ne high school kiya hua hai” We have hired a teacher to teach and educate the survivors from scratch.

“Unhone ne ABCD shuruat ki thi, aaj tuti footi English bhi bol lete hai logo.”

They are also given personality enhancement classes, during lockdown also they were given online classes. We were more dedicated during the lockdown period. We had many volunteers. Not just studies, we gave classes on savings, how to manage small finances, how to run a business etc, and they get to do the practical at Sheroes.

No age of a Survivor

See, there is no age of a survivor. Even a one year old is a victim of an acid attack. There is no list as such honestly, there are also many children associated with us. There was one 7-year-old acid attack victim with us. Many children become a part of the attack when an adult is targeted. Most of the time it is the case.

But there are many cases when children are attacked to take revenge from the family. There is one girl associated with us since 2016, her name is Garima. She was attacked in a family feud and the attacker escaped. She was just 12 years old back then. Now you can imagine. There is another girl, Julie, she is the age of my daughter. She also became the victim of an acid attack along with her mother. She was very young. Many people become a target when one individual is targeted.

Funds and More

From the total revenue generated, 70% of revenues are generated from Sheroes café and 30% is from crowdfunding. From the inception only, we focused on being a crowdfunded organization rather than being supported by any big organization. But recently, we have started taking CSR funds for treatments, charitable and welfare programmes are looking for CSR tie-ups.

Chhav in cities

Our office is in Noida and we have cafes in Agra and Lucknow. We conduct activities, seminars etc here. People from across the countries are associated with us. For example, there are 10 survivors from Orissa, so we have a small team there. Then in Bihar, we have 30 survivors with us for treatments. Similarly, there are many survivors from Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab etc.

How can you help?

Whatever skill you have, you can help us. For example, a doctor recently joined us, she donated and now she will hold regular healthcare camps for the survivors. Similarly, the students gave their time for teaching. So, many people are helping in designing and maintenance of the café. There is one designer who renovated our Agra café for free.

So whatever skill you have, you can come and help us. All you have to do is give us your time. You can help in developing the Sheroes Model, promote us online, or write about us. You can go to our website, fill the form or call us and join us. Almost all the skills come into play.

During the lockdown also, such skills and creative ideas of the people helped us sustain. For almost two years, the cafés were closed, so we started gifting and crafting work. If you ask me to appeal, I would appeal to established businesses also to come and tell us how we can improve and make it a sustainable model. Many of you can help us in raising awareness, with the help of the masses only we have organized numerous awareness programmes. So whatever skill you have you can come and be part of Sheroes and create a healthy space for the survivors and educate the masses about it. Thank you.

However, we are trying to create a space in society that is inclusive and offers equal opportunities to them.

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