She did not bring dowry in marriage. She turned down his proposal. She fought back when he tried to touch her. He had a brawl with his neighbor. She looked pretty in pink. And hence, they threw acid at them, to scar their body and soul. As per the data from the MHA Meeting, year 2014 saw 309 cases of acid attacks, which is a 300 percent rise in 3 years, with majority of the attacks targeted towards women. As a citizen of a sovereign, democratic republic, what was their fault?
In conversation with Ria Sharma, founder of Make Love Not Scars, an NGO working towards providing help and support to acid attacks victims in India. The organization not only aims at providing medical and legal assistance to the victims, but also helps them to resume and regain their life.
Make Love Not Scars: The Idea
Ria Sharma, a fashion student at Leeds College of Arts, United Kingdom returned to India in the third year of her graduate programme to make a documentary on acid attack survivors. In the process of creating the documentary, she met several survivors and their stories touched her and inspired her to help.
“The name “Make Love Not Scars” was well appreciated in UK. But when I told them here, people were very apprehensive of the name. They kept on repeating “Make Love” which for a moment made me have second thoughts. It was first meant to be just the name of the documentary. But when we opened up the organization, we were just a bunch of young people, so we thought “why not” and we decided to stick with the name.”
Make Love Not Scars is a crowd funded organization where they organize campaigns and reach out to volunteers and funders online through social media platform.
Make Love Not Scars: Changing Lives
“When you are dealing with someone’s life and you manage to make it better, I don’t count it as an achievement. It helps me sleep better at night knowing that one more person is happy in the world. When a survivor overcomes an obstacle in her everyday life, it makes me happy”.
Ria is a part of the survivors’ everyday struggles and she walks with them as she helps them build a life of their dreams. And in her own way, she changes their lives and the world as a whole.
Along the way, Ria faced several challenges as a young woman fighting for the victims of acid attacks.
“No one took me seriously in the beginning. That was one of the biggest challenges. Because of my age and my short height, people took me lightly when I walked into the meetings. Lot of people would judge me on my appearance and it was hard to get them to take me seriously. But if you try at hundred places, there’d be at least one person who’d take you seriously.
If you love something, you need to keep trying. It wasn’t something that I was willing to give up on. The survivors had become my friends and for me, it was more about being there for my friends and helping them out than anything else.”
Make Love Not Scars: Haseena’s Story
When asked to share with HerSaga, the most inspiring story of a survivor, Ria told us about Haseena.
Bangalore based Haseena was attacked by her former employer in 1999 and suffered burns and loss of vision. Today, almost 15 years after the attack, Haseena has a job and she supports her family.
“She was so phenomenal. It baffled me how someone could be that strong. For me, Haseena became my idol because she was a living example of: the world can knock you down as many times as it wants but it is your decision at the end of the day, whether you want to get up and fight or give up. She was the third survivor I met while making my documentary and she inspired me to start the organization. She was there with me at every step on my way, telling me what to do and what not to do, till I got the hang of it. She became my rock.”
Make Love Not Scars: Be the Change you want to see
Make Love Not Scars organizes campaigns and appoints volunteers all across the country to help the survivors.
“I am a control freak when it comes to my survivors because when you’re dealing with someone’s life, there is no room for mistake. We assign tasks to volunteers on need basis and once they get to know a survivor well, then we assign them bigger responsibilities.”
Make Love Not Scars ran a campaign called “End Acid Sale” in mid 2015 to put a ban on retail sale of acids, in which they released three videos to create awareness, followed by a petition for the same. They have received over 2.5 lac signatures already on their petition, and they are now gearing up for the second phase of the campaign and hope to garner support from the government.
The Supreme Court in April this year made it mandatory for both private and government hospitals across the country to provide full and free medical treatment to the victims. The treatment would include reconstructive surgery, medicines, accommodation, rehabilitation and aftercare. The government also increased the compensation to 3 lac INR per victim. Make Love Not Scars also has tie-ups with a certain number of hospitals and doctors that help with the reconstructive surgery of acid attack victims. Under the new guidelines, Make Love Not Scars has helped 5 victims to receive free treatment.
Make Love Not Scars: The woman behind her success
When asked about her role model in life, Ria promptly spoke about her mother.
“My mom is a strong human being and I learnt how to be strong through her. Not only is she strong but she is my number one supporter. I was never good at studies and people used to tell me that “you can’t do this” and stereotype me, but my mom always said, “You can be the prime minister if you want”, and we used to laugh together at it. She is a single parent, as my parents were divorced, but she has faced life so gracefully that I have always dreamed of following her footsteps. It is always good to have someone who believes in you unconditionally. “
Make Love Not Scars: Ria’s Message
23 year old Ria helps victims with legal and medical aid and also assists them in finding a job and standing on their feet as they take up the challenges in life. And she believes that each of us can make a difference by investing small efforts in our everyday lives.
“If you’re on the street and someone needs a small assistance, it will not cost you anything to be kind to them. Even if it is smiling at someone and have them smile back at you, I think it is these small things that contribute towards making the world a better place. I am not going to tell anyone to start an organization or join an NGO, because that’s something that comes from within and you can’t force people to do that, because if their heart is not into it, they cannot help. So everyone should start by just being nicer to each other and I believe that it can make a difference.”
An acid attack does not merely disfigure the appearance of a person, it scars their confidence and disrupts their lives. More than a ban on acid sale, what we need is awareness about the severity of the crime and the toll in takes on the lives of the victims. We need to create a safer and better world. We also need to return to the survivors their lives and their hope. We need to help them find the beauty inside them and walk with them, hand in hand, to create a beautiful world.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
– Elisabeth Kübler-Ross