How This Woman Found Hope After Being Attacked By Her Father

Photographed by Jihan Hafiz.
Geeta was lying on her cot, her two small daughters cradled at each side. The night seemed like any other for the 23-year-old mother living with her husband and her in-laws in a slum of Agra, India. But Geeta felt something was wrong. The birth of her daughters had caused tension with her husband, who feared that his lack of a son could mean he would lose rights to property claimed by other family members. Some nights, he would come home drunk and beat Geeta. Tonight, though, the house was quiet.

As Geeta closed her eyes, her daughters were already fast asleep. Then, in an instant, her face was consumed in unbearable pain. Her daughters were screaming. Her husband had thrown acid on all three of them as they slept. The acid burned the skin from their faces within seconds. Geeta feared all three would soon die. She rushed to the police station where, with both her daughters in critical condition, she explained who had attacked them — her own husband.

Geeta still remembers every detail of that night, more than two decades ago, that changed the course of her life. Weeks later, one of her daughters succumbed to her injuries and died. The other daughter, Neta, then 3, would grow up in shameful isolation, without a face and nearly blind. Out of fear of her husband's wrath, Geeta dropped all charges against the man who had attacked them, welcomed him home, and had a third daughter, Poonam, in 1999. The women have spent the past two decades living in fear that he will attack them again. Poonam says that she, too, has constant nightmares of her father.

"He threatens to attack us and kill us," she says. "Whenever I think of what happened, I feel awful. I even begged my mother for surgery to give my sister one of my eyes.”

For years, Geeta and Neta lived in near isolation, shunned by neighbors, and mocked and humiliated on the streets. Daily tasks like walking to the market or catching a bus once meant covering their faces with scarves and hiding the scars on their faces and arms.

But that life of isolation ended two years ago. Both mother and daughter joined Sheroes, a café set up by acid attack survivors in Agra, a city famous for the Taj Mahal. The café offers victims employment, connects them with other survivors, and helps them integrate back into society after years of isolation. At Sheroes, Geeta and Neta have met fellow survivors they've come to call their "sisters."

One of those sisters, Dolly, 15, was attacked two years ago, after weeks of sexual harassment by a 45-year-old neighbor. Dolly reported him to her parents, who confronted the man and warned him to stay away from her. Hours later, he appeared at Dolly’s house and tossed acid in her face. Because of the dozens of operations she would have to repair her face, Dolly never returned to school, and her family struggled with debt to pay her doctor's bills. Sheroes now helps Dolly pay for dance classes, a source of healing and inspiration for her.

Ahead, these incredible women share their stories of survival and sisterhood with Refinery29.

Photo caption: Poonam, 16, and her sister Neta. When she was just 3 years old, her father poured acid on her face while she slept. Both sisters and their mother still live with him, although they live in fear.
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Photographed by Jihan Hafiz.
Acid attacks in India have escalated over the years, despite a Supreme Court ban on the sale of acid. Used as a household cleaner, it costs between 15-40 cents for half a liter, and can be brought in any market. Organizers with Stop Acid Attacks in New Delhi estimate 40% of the acid attacks are committed by disgruntled lovers or husbands, while an additional 30% involve other family members. Similar attacks have occurred in countries around the world, including Colombia and the U.K.

Survivors face prejudice and can have trouble finding work. Geeta (left) explains how she gave birth to Poonam after her husband attacked her; she believed that their lives would be much more difficult without a man to protect and support them, even though he's violent and abusive.
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Photographed by Jihan Hafiz.
16-year-old Poonam (left) talks about how much she loves her sister, Neta (center), and wishes she could give her part of her skin and one of her eyes to make her life easier.
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Photographed by Jihan Hafiz.
Geeta, Neta, and Poonam pose for a photo with a family friend during a fashion show organized by Sheroes. It’s the first time in Neta’s life to dress up for a special event.
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Photographed by Jihan Hafiz.
Inside the kitchen at Sheroes, Geeta prepares chai masala for a group of American visiting to learn more about acid attacks. The café is a bustling, colorful place where survivors cook food and serve tea to their guests. There are no prices on the menus, so guests — mainly foreigners from all corners of the world — leave donations or pay as they please. It’s not uncommon to hear the women who work there call out to each other as "sister;" they consider themselves a small family now.
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Photographed by Jihan Hafiz.
A colorful mural of a woman with facial scars stands outside of Sheroes. The women say the artwork represents their defiance of the male-dominated world they live in. In December, the café celebrated its one-year anniversary and announced plans to open more branches in other cities to help more survivors live normal lives again. For the women it serves, it offers a life-changing experience of both work and sisterhood.
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Photographed by Jihan Hafiz.
17-year-old Ansu had just arrived in Sheroes and kept her head down. She doesn't yet have the same self-esteem that the other women have. But on her first day, she was warmly welcomed by a group of American women, who sang a song for her.
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Photographed by Jihan Hafiz.
But by the end of her first day, Ansu said she loves her new job at Sheroes. She helps the woman she now calls her "sisters" close down the cafe before heading to her new home in Agra.
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Photographed by Jihan Hafiz.
20-year-old Ritu was the subject of the 2014 Al Jazeera film Black Roses and Red Dresses, which documented her struggle to survive following an acid attack. Since the film, Ritu has become one of the strongest voices advocating for change, and is a leader among the women of Sheroes.
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Photographed by Jihan Hafiz.
To encourage women to come out of their shell, Sheroes organizes photo shoots at the Taj Mahal, where the women dress in saris and langas, another type of traditional Indian dress. Here, Ritu strikes a pose, proud of who she is and the way she looks once again.
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