Note: This story contains descriptions of gender-based violence.

20 years ago, Geeta Mahor was asleep with her two toddler daughters when her husband poured acid on them.

His reasoning? He was upset that she hadn’t brought him a son. Her 3-year-old daughter, Neetu, was left blind while her 1-year-old daughter, Krishna, died as a result of the burns a few weeks after the incident.


Over a decade later, Geeta — now more noticeable because of her scars — was approached by a member of India’s Stop Acid Attacks campaign. The group helped Geeta start a small kitchen to support herself, which eventually turned into a venue where survivors of acid attacks could redefine themselves as change-makers and heroines.

Geeta Mohr. All photos taken by Amund Bakke Foss and used with permission.

Acid attacks are heinous, gender-based crimes that are becoming more common in India.

In fact, India now has one of the highest rates of gender-based acid violence worldwide. According to a 2011 study, 72% of the cases reported in India from 2002 to 2010 included at least one female victim. In most of these cases, the perpetrators were men. While there are no exact recent figures available for India, in 2014 the Acid Survivors Foundation India documented 394 acid attacks nationwide, which triples the figures documented from the previous year.

"This number can be attributed to more women coming out and complaining about the crime, better mechanism of documenting the crime and the police's improved attitude towards handling the cases more seriously," said Janhavi Dave, a feminist activist working on gender and livelihood issues in India.

Agra, a city in the Uttar Pradesh state of northern India, is home to the kitchen that Geeta opened years ago, now called Sheroes’ Hangout.

Sheroes’ Hangout café in the city of Agra.

Sheroes’ Hangout, launched in late 2014, serves delicious food and drinks in the shadow of a glamorous neighbor: the ivory-white marble palace of the Taj Mahal. But since its opening, it has also had a larger purpose: to become a beacon of hope and strength for survivors of acid attacks and a center for art, education, and activism.

"In a small kitchen, I can fulfill my dreams, but with a big café, not only my dreams, but the dreams of all acid attack survivors in India," Geeta said.

The café is currently run by five female survivors of acid attacks, and four of them told me their stories.

The team includes Geeta and her daughter Neetu, who is now 24. The acid might have burned Neetu’s face and eyes, but it didn't reach her big welcoming smile.

Neetu sits at the café’s entrance to welcome visitors.

20-year-old Ritu Saini, a former professional volleyball player, is the manager of the café. In a case of revenge for unrequited love, Ritu’s cousin hired people to attack her with acid as she walked in the streets of her hometown Rohtak in the Indian state of Haryana.

Ritu is the Sheroes’ Hangout’s manager.

The youngest "shero" at the hangout is 16-year-old Dolly Kumari from Agra.

"I read about the café in the newspapers, so I decided to join the fight. I wanted to stop living in the closet and being ashamed, and my family supported me," she said.

Dolly was attacked three years ago by a man who constantly harassed her as she walked to school. "I told my parents, and they had a fight with him, my parents verbally abused him. One day I was playing with my siblings, and to take vengeance he poured acid on my face," Dolly explained.

The fight against acid attacks in India is still on, led by women like Dolly, Ritu, Geeta, and Neetu.

Several acid attack laws were passed in India in early 2013, including the Criminal Law Act. Under the new law, a person convicted of carrying out or being involved in an acid attack would face a minimum of 10 years of imprisonment and a maximum of a life sentence.

And in July 2013, India's Supreme Court also ordered that acid should not be sold to anyone under the age of 18 in an attempt to reduce attacks on women. At the same time, the court ordered a financial entitlement of 300,000 rupees to the survivors to help with rehabilitation as well.

(From left) Geeta, Ritu, Neetu, and Dolly.

But in 2014, a report analyzing 55 cases of acid attack in India indicated that on average it still took between 5 and 10 years for a legal case to be concluded and that only a few survivors actually received compensation.

Indian feminists like the sheroes welcome the supreme court’s ruling, but they also see that there is a long road ahead.

For example, it is still easier to buy concentrated acid than eyeliner or lipstick at Indian markets.

"Acid attack survivors want to adjust back into the society and be economically independent, but due to physical disability as a result of the attack or because of the popular notion of 'beauty,' the survivors are bereft of job opportunities. Spaces like Sheroes’ Hangout provide an opportunity to not only earn, but also continue their fight of activism," Dave said.

Geeta, Neetu, Ritu, and Dolly recently returned to their café after a short trip to the city of Lucknow, where they helped to open a second branch of Sheroes’ Hangout on International Women’s Day.

"I am very happy about the Lucknow branch. Seven survivors are running the café and starting a reach-out Stop Acid Attacks campaign sponsored by the Uttar Pradesh government," Geeta said.

Ritu, Dolly, and Geeta enjoy a cold drink in the Agra kitchen after their trip to Lucknow.

The Sheroes’ Hangout pay-as-you-want menu sums up the mission of the cafe pretty well: "Snacks are served with the chutney of empowerment," the menu reads. "Drinks are made using the sugar of happiness."

While I'm there, a customer approaches Ritu and tells her that the sheroes are a worldwide inspiration. Ritu's face lights up.

"People on the streets of Agra used to say hurtful comments about my face," she says. "After the success of the café, people come from all over the world to take pictures with us. Life is good."

Leah Menzies/TikTok

Leah Menzies had no idea her deceased mother was her boyfriend's kindergarten teacher.

When you start dating the love of your life, you want to share it with the people closest to you. Sadly, 18-year-old Leah Menzies couldn't do that. Her mother died when she was 7, so she would never have the chance to meet the young woman's boyfriend, Thomas McLeodd. But by a twist of fate, it turns out Thomas had already met Leah's mom when he was just 3 years old. Leah's mom was Thomas' kindergarten teacher.

The couple, who have been dating for seven months, made this realization during a visit to McCleodd's house. When Menzies went to meet his family for the first time, his mom (in true mom fashion) insisted on showing her a picture of him making a goofy face. When they brought out the picture, McLeodd recognized the face of his teacher as that of his girlfriend's mother.

Menzies posted about the realization moment on TikTok. "Me thinking my mum (who died when I was 7) will never meet my future boyfriend," she wrote on the video. The video shows her and McLeodd together, then flashes to the kindergarten class picture.

“He opens this album and then suddenly, he’s like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God — over and over again,” Menzies told TODAY. “I couldn’t figure out why he was being so dramatic.”

Obviously, Menzies is taking great comfort in knowing that even though her mother is no longer here, they can still maintain a connection. I know how important it was for me to have my mom accept my partner, and there would definitely be something missing if she wasn't here to share in my joy. It's also really incredible to know that Menzies' mother had a hand in making McLeodd the person he is today, even if it was only a small part.

@speccylee

Found out through this photo in his photo album. A moment straight out of a movie 🥲

♬ iris - 🫶

“It’s incredible that that she knew him," Menzies said. "What gets me is that she was standing with my future boyfriend and she had no idea.”

Since he was only 3, McLeodd has no actual memory of Menzies' mother. But his own mother remembers her as “kind and really gentle.”

The TikTok has understandably gone viral and the comments are so sweet and positive.

"No the chills I got omggg."

"This is the cutest thing I have watched."

"It’s as if she remembered some significance about him and sent him to you. Love fate 😍✨"

In the caption of the video, she said that discovering the connection between her boyfriend and her mom was "straight out of a movie." And if you're into romantic comedies, you're definitely nodding along right now.

Menzies and McLeodd made a follow-up TikTok to address everyone's positive response to their initial video and it's just as sweet. The young couple sits together and addresses some of the questions they noticed pop up. People were confused that they kept saying McLeodd was in kindergarten but only 3 years old when he was in Menzies' mother's class. The couple is Australian and Menzies explained that it's the equivalent of American preschool.

They also clarified that although they went to high school together and kind of knew of the other's existence, they didn't really get to know each other until they started dating seven months ago. So no, they truly had no idea that her mother was his teacher. Menzies revealed that she "didn't actually know that my mum taught at kindergarten."

"I just knew she was a teacher," she explained.

She made him act out his reaction to seeing the photo, saying he was "speechless," and when she looked at the photo she started crying. McLeodd recognized her mother because of the pictures Menzies keeps in her room. Cue the "awws," because this is so cute, I'm kvelling.

A simple solution for all ages, really.

School should feel like a safe space. But after the tragic news of yet another mass shooting, many children are scared to death. As a parent or a teacher, it can be an arduous task helping young minds to unpack such unthinkable monstrosities. Especially when, in all honesty, the adults are also terrified.

Katelyn Campbell, a clinical psychologist in South Carolina, worked with elementary school children in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting. She recently shared a simple idea that helped then, in hopes that it might help now.

The psychologist tweeted, “We had our kids draw pictures of scenery that made them feel calm—we then hung them up around the school—to make the ‘other kids who were scared’ have something calm to look at.”



“Kids, like adults, want to feel helpful when they feel helpless,” she continued, saying that drawing gave them something useful to do.

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It can be hard to find hope in hard times, but we have examples of humanity all around us.

I almost didn't create this post this week.

As the U.S. reels from yet another horrendous school massacre, barely on the heels of the Buffalo grocery store shooting and the Laguna Woods church shooting reminding us that gun violence follows us everywhere in this country, I find myself in a familiar state of anger and grief and frustration. One time would be too much. Every time, it's too much. And yet it keeps happening over and over and over again.

I've written article after article about gun violence. I've engaged in every debate under the sun. I've joined advocacy groups, written to lawmakers, donated to organizations trying to stop the carnage, and here we are again. Round and round we go.

It's hard not to lose hope. It would be easy to let the fuming rage consume every bit of joy and calm and light that we so desperately want and need. But we have to find a balance.

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