By Anuradha Nagaraj
Chennai: Measuring flour, whisking eggs and folding batter, K Asma forgets the deep scars that run down her face and neck as she bakes cupcakes in an upscale cafe in Chennai.
Four years ago, Asma poured kerosene on herself and lit a match, after reaching breaking point in an abusive marriage. By setting herself on fire, Asma had meant to scare her husband into stopping the violence.
“I was thinking a small burn mark, some ointment and back to work as a sweeper cleaning the city roads after a day,” Ms Asma told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I didn’t think the fire would consume me and my life would become a living hell.”
The 29-year-old is one of seven victims of domestic abuse hired by Writers’ Cafe in a pilot project to help them regain their self-esteem while learning new skills that could provide some financial independence.
India first recognised domestic violence as a criminal offence in 1983 and amended the penal code to include cruelty by a husband or his family against a married woman as a crime.
Last year, there were a reported 327,394 crimes against women in India, 35 per cent of which were classified as “cruelty by husband or relatives”, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
The overall crime rate was down by 3.1 per cent compared to 2014, but data showed an 8 per cent increase in cases brought under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. In 2015, 461 cases were registered against 426 in 2014.
Hiding bruises and staying quiet, many women in India, especially in rural areas, accept violence as a normal part of life.
Many envisage suicide as the only way out with hanging, poisoning and self-immolation common causes of death.
Like Asma, Parimala Gopi is also part of the Writers’ Cafe pilot project, and had also tried to set herself alight after enduring years of domestic violence.
“I could see the horror in the face of my children when they saw me,” Gopi, 35, said. “I could deal with my pain but seeing theirs broke my spirit.”
At Chennai’s Kilpauk Medical College burns ward, one of the largest in southern India, doctors treat up to 100 women a month for burns from kerosene and alcohol. Often the injuries are self-inflicted.
Counsellors at the hospital said that 60 per cent of the cases have third-degree burns that prove fatal.
“Among those who survive, we found that many were dying after discharge from the hospital,” said Prasanna Gettu of International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care, a support agency for victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
“They did not have enough money to take care of their diet or the medication they needed to heal. Families were not being supportive and many were just withering away. They needed jobs.”
At Writers’ Cafe, Swiss baker Silke Stadler and chef Karan Manavalan, who are training the women to bake cakes, said their aim is to create a positive workplace where the women are not judged for past actions.
“It is a good space to make things right for them,” Ms Stadler said.
Aniruddha Sen, the chief executive of CC Fine Foods South India Private Limited, which opened Writers’ Cafe, said his company planned to open similar cafes in 2017.
“We want them (the women) to have permanent livelihood through this venture,” he said.
Projects like this and Sheroes’ Hangout, a cafe run by survivors of acid attacks in the western city of Agra, are helping women find their place in society, campaigners say.
“It has been a long journey for these women to simply say yes to a job,” Ms Gettu said.
“They have battled stigma and their own insecurities before stepping out of their homes, boarding a bus, ignoring the stares and getting to work.”
Ms Asma does not mind that many people on the bus choose not to sit next to her during her daily commute to work.
“I just think about the work and Rs 10,000 rupees I earn every month,” she said.
“Baking that cake makes me forget everything, even my gnarled hands and scarred face. I find a little bit of happiness,” Ms Asma said.
© Thomson Reuters 2016