Cafe empowers acid attack survivors

Story highlights

  • The Sheroes Hangout Cafe in Agra, India, is staffed by acid attack survivors
  • The women gain confidence and become more comfortable without their veils

(CNN)Photographer Federico Borella was scared last year before visiting a little cafe in the northern Indian city of Agra. Not because of what he would see once he got there, but for how he -- and the people he was about to meet -- would react.

But then he saw Rupa.
    "When I saw Rupa for the first time, every feeling was gone immediately," he said. "Because I saw in her face and in the face of the other girls -- in Ritu and Dolly -- I saw a very big smile."
    Rupa, Ritu and Dolly are some of the women who work at the Sheroes Hangout Cafe. The three of them, and the others who work there, are all survivors of acid attacks.
    Borella says it was less than 10 minutes after meeting the women that he found himself sitting with them in front of the cafe singing "O sole mio" in Italian.
    Photographer Federico Borella
    The cafe opened in December 2014 and was founded by Stop Acid Attacks, a New Delhi-based nonprofit. Sheroes aims to create awareness about acid attacks and to foster confidence in acid attack survivors. Borella has made several trips to the cafe for his photo series, "Sheroes, After the Acid Attacks."
    One of the first pictures he made -- post-singing session -- is of Ritu sitting inside Sheroes. He captured the moment from behind a glass.
    "It was a sort of way to start my work with caution," Borella said of the photo, No. 14 in the gallery above. "In this picture, I can see Ritu thinking. She's not aware of my presence."
    Since the Italian photographer doesn't speak Hindi and the women don't speak English, they rely on someone to translate for them. But this language barrier doesn't seem to matter, Borella says, because with simple gestures and behaviors, they've managed to develop strong connections and relationships.

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    Borella hopes his photographs raise awareness about acid attacks in India, and he wants to show survivors from a more positive perspective. One of his favorite pictures is of Rupa dancing with tourists.
    "This picture for me represents what is the real mission of the Sheroes Hangout," he said of the fifth photo above. "It was funny because (the tourists) asked for music. They immediately started dancing in less than five minutes. There was a sort of strong feeling between them -- the tourists -- and the rest of the girls on the left -- Dolly, Ritu and Gita."
    Borella says he gets goose bumps every time he thinks about what the women at Sheroes have been through. The reasons and motivations behind acid attacks are especially troubling to him, and they primarily target women. According to the Acid Survivors Foundation in India, acid attacks result from a number of situations: family disputes, vengefulness, jealousy, mistaken identity and sex crimes, among others.
    Gita, for instance, was attacked by her husband out of jealousy, she said. He threw acid at her as well as at her two daughters -- Nitu, who was maimed and blinded, and Krishna, who was killed. And then there's Ritu, who was only 17 when she was attacked in the middle of the street by two men on a motorcycle.
    "Every time, I think about the pure evil, in which way the human race can be very bad," Borella said. "Almost every day, I'm trying to understand: Why the acid? Why? Why?"
    It's not only men who attack women. Rupa's mother died when she was a child. When Rupa was 17, her stepmother thought she looked too much like her mother, so she threw acid on her face while she was sleeping.
    Acid attacks happen around the globe, and Borella says that in India, chemicals are pretty cheap to get. Last year, there were 249 reported acid attacks in India, according to the country's Acid Survivors Foundation. In 2013, the country's laws were reformed so that attacking someone with chemicals became punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
    Borella wonders whether people in the region have become used to acid attacks. He describes how, as an Italian, people always stare at him when he's in India -- yet they never seem to pay much attention when they see someone severely disfigured by an acid attack.
    "When I saw that they are probably used to seeing victims of acid attacks ... I said: 'Oh my God, no. This cannot be possible,' " Borella said. "It's hard to believe that you are used to seeing tragedy like this."
    What Borella finds interesting is that Sheroes is not too far from the Taj Mahal. In fact, you can see the marble mausoleum in the top left corner of photo No. 2 in the gallery above, while Sheroes is delicately lit toward the bottom center.
    The Taj Mahal -- commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal -- is one of the reasons Agra is known as the city of love, Borella says.
    "In the same area, there is almost the opposite," he said, referring to how acid attacks -- acts certainly not born out of love -- are the reason Sheroes came to be in the first place. "It's something like black and white, night and day."
    Despite this, there seems to be a lot of love at Sheroes -- from the people who created it to the women who work there to the customers who visit it. The cafe has become a place where survivors can be comfortable, a place where they can remove the veils they may have once felt the need to cover themselves with.
    After an attack, Borella says, many of the women would be afraid to show their faces in public, for fear of people staring at their scars and the discrimination they would face.
    "I understood that with the help of the Sheroes Hangout NGO, they are not afraid anymore," Borella said. "They are confident. They are not scared in front of the foreigners, in front of the customers, in front of the local people."
    He recalls one moment in particular that he had with Dolly. At 12 years old, Dolly was attacked while trying to defend her sister from a neighbor's unwanted advances. Borella says he asked her for a picture of her before the attack, which can be seen on the right in photo No. 12.
    "When Dolly (gave) me her picture, I was crying," Borella said. "My reaction was immediately very strong, very, very strong. She noticed it, and she said: 'Federico, don't worry. I am happy right now.' "