For Ria Sharma, the decision to dedicating her life to helping women suffering from acid attacks began with her work on a film documentary about acid attack survivors. "While I was shooting the documentary, I found myself in a government hospital burn ward,” says the 23-year-oldSharma. “The things I saw in the ward left me forever changed. I had never witnessed so much misery all at once, I had never been surrounded by so much pain. When you are in that situation you have two options, you could either return to the comfort of your own life or you could try and make someone else’s life comfortable.”
While acid attacks on women are a problem in countries around the world, they are especially common in India were a litre of acid can be purchased for as little as thirty-three cents. Whether the attacker is a spurned suitor or a family member outraged over how women behave, an estimated 1,000 acid attacks are reported each year. According to Acid Survivors Trust International, the figure is likely much higher with many women failing to report attacks due to fear of retaliation.
On discovering that many acid attack survivors have difficulty getting quality medical treatment and emotional support, Ria Sharma founded Make Love Not Scars (MLNS) in 2014. Along with providing vocational training, legal advice, and mental health services, MLNS has opened the first rehabilitation clinic dedicated to acid attack survivors in New Delhi. The new clinic acts as a safe space for the predominantly female survivors to bond as they get treatment. It even provides sleeping quarters for survivors who need to travel to the clinic from other parts of the country. Survivors also have access to yoga, poetry readings, as well as financial and emotional support from trained counselors. The centre provides full-time employment for three Delhi women and a rotating roster of teachers, one of whom is an acid survivor herself.
While Ria Sharma and her organization have gained international support, including financial support allowing for billboard advertisements calling for a ban on the sale of acid, she admits that her crusade is a constant struggle. Acid attack victims often become pariahs due to their disfigured appearance as well as the stigma associated with these kind of attacks. But Sharma is hoping that the new centre will start to change attitudes. "I think the existence of such a center is going to be extremely instrumental towards changing the lives and future of acid attack survivors.”
She is also candid in her hope that there will be no need for an organization such as MNLS in ten or twenty years. As she told a journalist with Public Radio International, her dream is for survivors to gain the tools they need to live productive lives. By sending a message that women cannot be intimidated by acid attacks, the horrible ordeal these victims go through may well become a part of the past.