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This Café In Lucknow Is Smashing Stereotypes Around ‘Beauty’ In A Powerful Way

By Anshuman Singh:

Sheroes Hangout Café & Reach-Out centre (Asha Jyoti Chapter) is located opposite Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar Sthal, near Lucknow Metro Office, Gomti Nagar, Lucknow. There is one in Agra also.

Anshuman with the crew at Sheroes Hangout.
Anshuman (left) with the crew at Sheroes Hangout.

Rani, Anshu, Farah, Shanti and Preeti. Five acid attack survivors, five incredible stories of lives shattered, but refusing to break. Theirs are stories of unimaginable pain and an indomitable spirit. All are proud workers at Sheroes Hangout Café in Lucknow, the labour of love and commitment of a campaign that has a sole motive: #StopAcidAttacks.

A place for acid attack survivors in India, this Indian café at Lucknow has made itself a place of refuge and recovery for India’s acid attack fighters.

After establishing themselves close to world’s biggest symbol of love in Agra, they finally got their second café inaugurated this International Women’s Day on March 8, 2016, in the ‘City of Nawabs, Kababs & Adab’ – Lucknow – after CM Akhilesh Yadav made a surprise visit to this first of its kind café at Agra in 2015.

I interviewed Alok Dixit, co-founder of Sheroes Café and Chhanv Foundation and also a key person behind the campaign team of #StopAcidAttacks. Alok’s life partner Laxmi too is an acid attack survivor and the face of the #StopAcidAttacks campaign in India and abroad as well. Both run Chhanv Foundation and Sheroes Hangout Café together with other team members.

Anshuman Singh (AS): How did Sheroes Hangout Café happen in Lucknow?

sheroes hangout cafe lucknow entrance gate
The entrance to the café.

Alok Dixit (AD): I was sleeping and somewhere outstation when a call from the Café at Agra woke me up. The staff told me the Chief Minister had arrived at our café and wanted to talk to me. Before I could understand what was happening, he instantly asked me on the phone to open a similar café at Lucknow as well and offered his assistance for the same. Maybe he was impressed by the initiatives taken and efforts made by our NGO (Chhanv Foundation). We were asked to choose an appropriate government space for our café in Lucknow and he made sure that the UP government provided it to us for free. And here we are today at Sheroes Hangout Café & Reach-Out centre. A readers’ café, an activism centre, a reach-out station, all with a crew of six braveheart acid attack fighters at your service.

AS: When and how did the idea of such a café come to your mind?

AD: It was around 2013 that we, a group of friends started this campaign against the acid attack violence named #StopAcidAttacks. During that period of continuous struggle, we found that acid attack ‘victims’ were shown the least concern be it in jobs, education or even by the government, police and courts. And it was then that we decided to turn our campaign into a registered organisation for the rehabilitation of acid attack survivors – Chhanv Foundation – in 2014. While helping them to rehabilitate and providing them jobs, we found that many of them lacked professional skills and so we thought that a café could be the only place where both the skilled and non-skilled ones can work and earn together besides spreading awareness to other people about acid attacks.

Thus, the idea of Sheroes Hangout came up. A venue where new wave feminism evolves every day to overcome the challenges faced by women in South Asian societies and cultures. We started Sheroes Hangout in Agra on a test run basis first on October 19, 2014, without any support from corporates or the government. We asked the common people of our society to contribute to our project and help us in setting up a business venture for survivors of acid attacks in India since we ourselves didn’t have any business expertise. We also asked some of our friends in India to donate money if they could just for some backup funds to ensure that our business and idea didn’t fail. By God’s grace, many people from different sections of society came forward to help us. And finally, the café was officially opened on December 10, 2014, in Agra. It was started with crowd-funding.

AS: Why the title ‘Sheroes Hangout’?

Alok Dixit
Alok Dixit.

AD: The Sheroes here are women who have fought to survive after receiving a debilitating blow to their appearance and self-esteem by some members of our own society. These women are on the way to becoming true fighters, who have the courage to live, work and walk in the midst of society and force the society to re-evaluate its norms about beauty and appearance. At Sheroes, the ideas of beauty and importance of appearance are often the talking point.

Our café in Agra has now evolved into a campaign to generate awareness about acid attacks and help survivors live normal lives, in the midst of a society that harbours one prejudice too many about beauty, especially when it comes to women. We want to deliver the same message now in Lucknow too. The presence of Lucknowites in this café is not important just because we want to give them an ambience they never had before but also because the isolation these women feel after the attack might be worse than the physical injury. We want to change the perception that a person is less ‘valuable’ based on their appearance.

AS: How does Sheroes Hangout help these women to become self-reliant?

AD: Chhanv Foundation’s campaign #StopAcidAttacks provides our fighters with business exposure. What’s better to bring back that confidence than going out in this mean world and snatching some gold for oneself? A café run only by our fighters provides them with that unique opportunity to explore their strengths, their business acumen, to practice their skills and test them against the strong forces of the free market and the fickle human will. The ladies here run the restaurant, sell their hard worked art pieces and maintain a debate room that makes it a haven for the elements of change to come and discuss and meet like-minded people. I want the people of Lucknow to come meet these strong ladies and be inspired, draw courage and, as in the lines of the fading legend, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

AS: How is Sheroes Hangout a better aid to any acid attack survivor than any other place?

AD: At Sheroes Hangout, survivors of acid attacks can get a job which matches their own interest and skill, which most of them don’t get because society often treats them as ‘victims’. And since the idea of this space has evolved from a campaign for acid attack survivors, the ideas of beauty and appearance in society remain the epicentre of discussions and programmes run from here.

The Menu.

AS: What change has Sheroes Hangout made in the lives of these women?

AD: For that, I believe you should particularly interview my crew members. Their words would mean more to me. (Smiles).

And with this, I interacted with each of the five acid attack fighters who work in Sheroes Hangout Lucknow to know how they view their lives now. What I discovered was quite shocking but also inspiring. These acid attacks were acts of revenge for no fault of these women. What is worse is that not only did most of them not receive any government aid, most of the attackers have not been brought to justice. However, the confidence with which they spoke was reassuring.

Rani, Anshu and Farah have been associated with Sheroes Hangout for a while now. They used to work at the cafe in Agra before moving here. Shanti and Preeti are late additions to the crew but seem to be loving it here.

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Story - Rani

Story - Anshu

Story - Farah

Story - Shanti

Story - Preeti

[su_divider top=”no” divider_color=”#090a08″ link_color=”#fff” size=”2″ margin=”10″]

Uttar Pradesh ranks highest in terms of acid attacks. Alok Dixit, who is from UP (Kanpur) himself, chose to start this initiative against acid attacks from Agra and Lucknow, two major cities of UP. After so many efforts by people like Alok, the UP government provided free treatment to several acid attack survivors. But a majority of acid attack victims across India have either not been given their promised compensation or haven’t even been offered anything. Even many of the acid attack fighters working in Sheroes Café still await government relief. It must be noted, unfortunately, that acid is still sold freely in the markets without any restrictions on anyone. And this is going on even after so many judgements from courts. The war against open sale of acid by the campaign team #StopAcidAttacks continues. Sadly, the Indian judiciary has failed miserably to punish a majority of the culprits in acid attack crimes. The interaction with the ‘Sheroes’ here clearly shows how much justice they have been given.

Chhanv Foundation is still working hard every day and night to make our society a better place for acid attack fighters. They are also opening their third Sheroes Hangout Café in Udaipur this month.

All photos shared by Anshuman Singh.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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