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.