Recently I visited my hometown Lucknow and was truly excited when I came to know about this lovely place called, Sheroes, visiting this place can make you rethink about the way you see life. It might make you a little uncomfortable initially, but it will definitely inspire you to the core. You may lose a sense of how to act and how not to, be a bit conscious to look at them for the fear of not knowing what might offend them, yet you can’t take your eyes off them.
Sheroes is a cafe run by women who are acid attack survivors. They don’t call themselves acid attack victims because of the fighter spirit that they have, which makes them survivors. Sheroes is a wonderful Initiative by Channv Foundation and Stop Acid Attack Campaign. It is a reader’s cafe and was initially started in Agra by 5 survivors. Later with the support of Uttar Pradesh government they were able to open up a second cafe in Gomatinagar, Lucknow.
I had an opportunity to talk to one of the survivors. Her story made me rethink about the society we live in. In conversation with Bittan who now likes to be called Soni, she changed her name because she wanted a fresh start, the new beginning of a life without any baggage from the past. It has been 3 years now that Soni started working at Sheroes. A week ago from our conversation she celebrated her birthday and she was so excited to tell me about all the new gifts she got.
Soni was born in Sirsi, Sambhal a small village near Moradabad. She got married at the early age of 15. Little did she know that her husband was not only an alcoholic but also abusive. Things became worse when he was kicked out from his guard job and started asking for money from her. One night when Bittan refused to give him any more money, he left. Later that night he got really drunk and came back with a bottle of acid and splashed it on Bittan’s face while she was asleep. Her neighbours immediately took her to the hospital and no FIR was filed against her husband. She was too scared to live with him anymore. She wasn’t accepted back by her own parents due to social pressures. She wasn’t even allowed to enter in her own village as most people thought she was cursed. For one complete year she was all by herself when finally she was helped by the Acid Attack Campaign. Her story made me sad, angry, confused maybe a little lost as well. It made a dent in my universe, I was teary eyed but Soni was still smiling. She made sure the tea I had ordered was re heated.
This place had such a positive and refreshing vibe, it focuses on fighting against discrimination, makes sure that every individual gets equal opportunity and a second chance at life. Not only it ensures women empowerment but also makes sure that the survivors have a ‘normal’ life after the suffering. This is not just a cafe run by survivors; it is a safe space where people know that they won’t be judged. Programmes on gender discrimination and legal awareness are organised on a weekly basis. The activism at Sheroes is aimed at training the girls to use computer and mobile phones helping them utilise social media as a real tool of empowerment. It’s also a space for creating handicrafts and exhibition. In its essence, it is a platform for those who face the stigma of a social crime and refuse to give up.
To tackle any issue, our goal should be to reach to its roots and work on them for sustainable results. We live in a society which is full of issues and we follow double standards for them. Showing concern on the face of it will not help unless we actually make an effort to bring a change in our attitude.
According to me, poor quality of education is affecting the mindsets of our society. The education system which caters to the base of our society, the future adults is dysfunctional in itself. The current education system seeks to complete syllabus and teach theorems and maintain a robotic functioning of the society. Instead of teaching us how to think, it teaches us what to think which is a part of the problem. We are taught how to earn but very less attention is given on how to live. In a mechanic education system like ours where the values are restricted to the chapters of a moral science book, where we face judgement at every step we take and outer beauty still decides the worth of an individual in this society, we need to question our ways.
Why is it that every time we get to know about acid attacks, our first reaction is to sympathise with them? Why is it that we look away when we look at them because they break our society’s standards of beauty? Why is it that we pity them thinking that their lives have been ruined because of their loss of beauty? Why is it that the crime of another lives on forever with them?
However, in a society like ours they refuse to be reduced to an acid attack victim, they take pride in being the acid attack survivors, they are humans and that’s all they expect back from the society, to be decent fellow humans. That is exactly what our education system lacks. Formal schooling is where a major portion of an individual’s life is spent and has the maximum influence on them. Where is the place for learning values and respect for human dignity in the busy schedule of mugging up?
Therefore, the broader issue that needs urgent focus is education, and with education I don’t mean schools, I mean learning. We are far behind when it comes to teaching values and what it is to be a human. I believe that if we really want to see a positive cultural shift in the society, we need to focus on the roots and the ground level and that is by moving and looking beyond the syllabus. By teaching them real values and making sure they grow up to be responsible citizens and better human beings.