Human rights activist Ria Sharma, who set up the world’s first rehabilitation centre for acid attack survivors in Delhi, named Make Love Not Scars, speaks to Rishita Roy Chowdhury.
A graduate of the Leeds College of Art in the UK, Ria Sharma is a globally known human rights activist, who in 2014 founded the world’s first rehabilitation centre for acid attack survivors in Delhi. This drastic career move happened when Sharma was hit by the horror of gender-based violence and the corrosive reality of acid attacks.
It was also Sharma’s dissatisfaction with her graduation course—fashion design—which led her to conceive her final-year project around the subject of women’s empowerment. What started off as a documentary, Make Love Not Scars, on the lives of acid attack survivors, eventually drew her back to India for good. Moved by the stories of the survivors she interacted with, Sharma decided to continue her work by setting up an NGO, named after the documentary, to raise funds for them. Till today, Make Love Not Scars has rehabilitated over 60 survivors and has run several successful awareness campaigns about acid attacks and the unregulated sale of acid in India.
The 26-year-old—who has won numerous accolades for her activism and became the first Indian to receive the UN Global Goals Award in 2017—spoke to us about her journey as recorded in her latest book, also titled Make Love Not Scars.
Q. What attracted you to the cause of rehabilitating and empowering acid attack survivors?
A. In my third and final year of college, I found that I was failing because I lacked passion for the subject. I couldn’t relate to it and I realised that if I failed to perform, I would not get a degree. It was this fear that gave me the courage to explore themes that actually interested me. After being inspired by the Nirbhaya incident in 2012, which sparked a significant women’s rights movement in India, I decided to delve deeper into the atrocities that were committed on Indian women. While researching, I stumbled across a picture of an acid attack survivor and couldn’t get the image out of my mind. It started as an obsession of sorts and after being persuaded by my professors, I decided to spend my last semester in India, shooting a documentary on the subject. Meeting the survivors and visiting a government hospital burns ward opened my eyes to what a sheltered life I had been living and a pang of certain guilt and anger crept up. The day after I visited the ward, I decided to turn Make Love Not Scars, the to-be documentary into a holistic organisation that would help rehabilitate acid attack survivors.
Q. Could you elaborate on the kind of work your NGO, Make Love Not Scars, has been doing?
A. Make Love Not Scars has definitely been a one-of-a-kind journey. I had no prior knowledge in this field and didn’t have a lot of people I could look to for guidance. It was all trial-and-error, fuelled by only one inspiration, the survivors. It became easier to get back up again after every failure because the lives of my friends (the survivors) depended on it. The journey has been laden with unimaginable lows and even greater highs. The NGO so far has helped rehabilitate over 60 acid attack survivors, legally, medically and with skills and vocational training. The organisation runs the world’s first rehabilitation centre for acid attack survivors and also contributes towards a large amount of awareness that is spread on acid attacks through its campaigns and content.
Q. How would you describe your experience of working with acid attack survivors?
A. To say that working with the survivors has been “inspiring” wouldn’t do it justice. I have learnt priceless lessons and owe them everything I am today. By everything I am not referring to any accolade; I am referring to the person I am today. If my life had never come in contact with the survivors, I would have been a far worse version of myself. They saved me from succumbing to superficiality. The survivors help me maintain my perspective on life; I would have been shallow and hollow without them.
Q. Could you share with us some anecdotes from your interactions with the survivors—anecdotes that affected and moved you?
A. Every survivor I have met or spoken to has taught me something that I cherish. Each one of them has a special place in my heart. Here’s an example: the first time I lost a survivor because she succumbed to her injuries, I learnt that true misery only exists when someone closes their eyes for the last time. She taught me that before that happens, true misery can never actually prevail. I’ve learnt never to lose hope and try as hard as I can before that happens. Through all of the survivors collectively, I have learnt never to judge a book by its cover. I once met a survivor who was blind and when she liked me, I realised the way I looked didn’t matter. I want to live by that notion: concentrate on being the best version of yourself and worry less about the way you look. My survivors teach me day in and day out that courage and strength can truly conquer any situation if you just have the will to live.
Q. What kind of challenges have you had to overcome while working with the survivors?
A. I think every new case we receive comes with its own share of challenges because human beings are complex and deal with situations in different ways. We take every case on an individual basis and try to overcome the challenges by being persistent and not losing hope. Apart from the cases themselves, it’s been very hard to sensitise society and change mindsets. It’s been difficult to get society to accept the survivors… But then again, we can’t expect for this to change overnight. We also face challenges with the judicial system that works at an agonisingly slow pace, because of which a lot of the survivors don’t receive their compensation on time and rarely get justice. Fighting to have basic rights implemented is a challenge in itself and it’s safe to say that the system has failed the survivors.
Q. Since you mentioned the social stigma that haunts acid attack survivors, what do you think can be done to change that reality?
A. Change begins at home and if we start proving to women that they will be fairly judged on what they can do instead of how they look, I believe we will be creating a tomorrow that could boast of equality. In a country that is male-dominated and where little girls are given more training in the kitchen than in the classroom, it is but obvious that only one gender will progress. We need to create equal opportunities for women, educate boys on how women should be treated and simultaneously work on empowering our women. One of the main reasons why acid attacks happen is because the attacker believes that if a woman’s face is ruined, her standing in society is ruined as well. It is our fault as a society that the attacker thinks this way. It is collectively our fault that a woman’s face is seen as her only contribution to society.
Q. Tell us about your book, Make Love Not Scars. Did you do any special research for it?
A. Fortunately, a lot of my book is about my first-hand account with the survivors. It is written from the perspective of a 21-year-old and is very true to the incidents I have witnessed. My journey has been my research. Since I set up Make Love Not Scars in 2014, I started writing a lot of what I was witnessing as a coping method. Writing things down helped me make sense of this senseless crime and served to be therapeutic. In 2018, when it was decided that this would become a book, luckily I had most of the material written down already. Four years of my life have been the research that has gone into this book. I don’t really remember much of a life before it, because I truly believe I started a new life when I started working with the survivors.
Q. Tell us about your campaign, End Acid Sale. Do you think acid attacks can be effectively curbed?
A. End Acid Sale was a campaign we created with Ogilvy, an advertising company, and Mather, a communications agency. It consisted of three beauty tutorials starring an acid attack survivor, Reshma Qureshi. The videos made a powerful point about the easy availability of acid. The call to action on the videos was to sign a petition addressed to the Prime Minister of India. Though the Supreme Court of India had already regulated the sale of acid in 2013, like any other law passed in our country, this ban was never really implemented. Though our petition received global recognition and over 300,900 signatures, and was even sent to the PMO, we never received a response. To be honest, we didn’t expect a response because that would mean that the government would have to accept that India had a problem with acid attacks, and we knew that wasn’t going to happen. However, the popularity of our campaign successfully helped us spread much-needed awareness and also helped us bring an acid attack survivor into the limelight. I believe that acid attack cases can decrease drastically if the ban on open sale of acid is actually implemented.
Q. What more are you planning to accomplish with your NGO?
A. We want to try and implement more rehabilitation centres around the country so that we can reach more survivors. While working with acid attack survivors and visiting them at hospitals, we have seen that there is a greater need for intervention when it comes to gender-based violence, and burns in general. In the past, we have helped survivors who have been victims of gasoline inflicted burns and have found that it is fairly common for women to be victims of such crimes. In the future, we aim to help such survivors as well and not just limit ourselves to acid attacks.