Located opposite the monumental Ambedkar Memorial Park, Sheroes Hangout is a quaint little café in Lucknow that is run by acid attack survivors. The café if often frequented by Lucknowites and the cheerful smiles that greet you upon entering, tells stories of incredible women who suffered through unimaginable pain and their sheer determination that persevered countless adversities. The café, with its empowering concept, is an initiative by Channv Foundation, a support centre for acid attack fighters, and is jointly managed in partnership with Uttar Pradesh Mahila Kalyan Nigam. Presently, 12 acid attack survivors are employed at the Lucknow outlet. It was also awarded the Nari Shakti award by the President of India.
But the undaunted smile that graced these brave women now appears to be fading. Two years after they build a life of their own, acid attack survivors at Sheroes are now in a grim state over their future as the café might be shut down.
The café was sent a notice by the Uttar Pradesh Mahila Kalyan Nigam asking it to vacate the premises by September 29th. The notice mentioned that the women welfare department does not want to continue with the project as it is not fulfilling its purpose. However, the ‘purpose’ listed in the notice wasn’t explicitly mentioned. It also stated that workers currently employed with the café will be assisted with the requisite training in association with the National Skill Development Corporation and the State Resource Centre for Women and Child to ensure their employment.
As per the contract, UP MK Nigam was to sustain the café and provide salaries up to 2 years – from March 2016 to March 2018. Afterwards, Chhanv foundation had to mobilise resources and sustain the café themselves. Trouble loomed over the café after its lease ended in March 2018 and the government floated tender inviting prospective bids to run the premises. After the foundation’s intervention on grounds of violation of rules, the State Monitory Committee, entrusted with the responsibility to oversee the management of the café, came to the conclusion that there is no viable justification for the café to run after its lease ends.
After a successful run in Agra, Sheroes opened a second café in Lucknow on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2016. Former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav even visited the Agra outlet and was impressed by the women’s willpower and provided assistance to set up similar café across the state, starting with Lucknow. The current government, however, has paid no heed to the rehabilitation of acid attack survivors. On the contrary, it seems to have a blatant disregard for these women’s struggles. The café located in Agra, too, faced some inconvenience when the local municipal body demolished the front portion of the café during an anti-encroachment drive in Agra in July this year.
With no policy framework in place in the country to tackle this gender-based violence, Sheroes Hangout Café & Reach-Out centre has emerged as a refuge for acid attack survivors. The initiative aims to rehabilitate women by providing them with a job that adequately matches their skills and interest, a right that society has unjustly stolen from them due to their prejudice. Besides providing employment, the café also supports victims of acid attacks by providing treatment, legal help, counselling and training.
Instead of setting up more such units, the government is shutting down noble projects, such as this, For baseless reasons.
#StopAcidAttacks, a campaign started by Alok Dixit and Ashish Shukla, the founders of Chhanv Foundation, aims to spread awareness and advocate for acid attack fighters and demand the right to treatment by the government. Its main goal is to rebuild the survivor’s confidence by providing them with business exposure and helping them stand on their feet.
Besides providing a platform to uplift women, the café never shied from inclusivity and has played host to literary events, open mic sessions, workshops, and LGBTQIA+ events in the past.
With the women welfare department’s decision to shut down the café, the department’s action points to the contrary on what it stands for. This move will put 20 women – 12 full-time workers and 8 part-time workers out of a job. The survivors who received treatment through the café’s revenue will also suffer. Not only that, the women who braved all odds and overcame this injustice will face further trauma by being forced to re-build their lives for a second time from scratch.
Instead of setting up more such units, the government is shutting down noble projects, such as this, on baseless reasons. A number of women moved to the city to work at Sheroes in hopes of starting afresh. Running for almost 30 months, the café has become an integral part of the city, a symbol for women empowerment.
Sheroes is an epitome of defiance against one of the most heinous and cowardly attacks. Acid attacks are a tool meant to subjugate women, one of the most violent forms of misogyny. Shutting the venture down will be a huge step backwards for us as a society.
the women who braved all odds and overcame this injustice will face further trauma by being forced to re-build their lives for a second time.
With no choice left but to fight this injustice like the countless times they did in the past, the women of Sheroes are protesting against their livelihood being taken away. The Foundation moved to the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court to be allowed time till October 24 to vacate the premises. Aashish Shukla, director of Chhanv Foundation said, “When an organization is performing good and actively works towards social acceptance then shutting it down without any valid reason is not okay.”
Urging the government to save the café, he appealed CM Adityanath Yogi to intervene and take affirmative action. He reiterated how the identity of the victims, one they built up from scratch, will be eased if this is taken away from them. He also questioned whether the government will be able to provide financial security to the workers post shut-down.
The café’s Facebook page Sheroes Hangout Lucknow is filled with posts urging the people to assist them in their fight. The women of Sheroes took to the social media site to call out the state government’s discriminatory attitude, Anshu, an acid attack survivor and a key member of the café was holding a poster calling Ritu Bahuguna Joshi, minister of Mahila Kalyan Nigam, a liar. In a Facebook live chat, she says, “We built Sheroes through our hard work and Mahila Kalyan Nigam is ousting us from our place of livelihood,” she said in the Facebook live.
Another member, Farah states “Our right to work here is being taken away from us. If we stop working here it would be a setback for the workers who provide for their families. We have been broken down before, Sheroes proved to be a source of support for us and we don’t want to leave it,” said Reshma who has been a part of Sheroes Hangout for 2 years.
You can help them in keeping the café running by signing this petition.
Featured Image Source: Facebook