Building a place of refuge
According to the Indian National Crimes Bureau, there were 182 acid attacks reported in the country in 2020
The news of a 24-year-old woman who sustained burns on her face and eyes after she was doused with acid in Srinagar on February 2 has caused widespread public outrage. The assault took place outside her home, late evening, after she allegedly rejected a marriage proposal by the prime accused. The heinous crime of throwing acid to disfigure a person is not uncommon in India.
According to the Indian National Crimes Bureau, there were 182 acid attacks reported in the country in 2020. There are many recorded cases of women who have faced such assault for reasons similar to that of the Srinagar survivor. Apart from the physical pain that these survivors go through, such attacks also cause severe psychological trauma.
In an attempt to rehabilitate acid attack survivors and provide them an opportunity to reclaim their lives, Ria Sharma (29) launched Make Love Not Scars (MLNS), a non-profit organisation that was officially registered in 2014. “I started learning about acid attacks in 2013, with the intention of making a documentary on them. I realised that a documentary might help spread awareness in the long run, but survivors needed help in the short term,” explains Sharma, talking about why she started this organisation.
Fostering a community
With their office in Lado Sarai, MLNS has rehabilitated more than 100 survivors since its inception. The organisation takes care of the recovery and medical needs of these survivors by helping them recover at their rehabilitation centre as well as funding the cosmetic surgery and treatments such as giving prosthetic eyes, laser treatments for scar revision, eyebrow tattoos, etc. The initiative is also aimed at helping the survivors regain their confidence. “Rehabilitating a survivor is a life-long process. To be honest, after a trauma this big—there will always be some form of help that the survivors will need in the long run,” mentions Sharma.
Making the rehabilitation project all-inclusive, MLNS also connects survivors with pro-bono lawyers, mental health professionals, and at times, funds the education of their children. Along with this, they also organise a number of campaigns to raise awareness against acid attacks.
Creating a positive change
Sharma’s memoir Make Love Not Scars, published in 2019, chronicles her journey of establishing MLNS and the challenges that she and the survivors faced along the way. “It [the book] required so much reflection because I realised that I had never thought about why I did what I did. I had to dig deep and find parts of myself I never expected,” she shares. Debunking the belief that acid attack survivors are only women, Sharma, in her memoir, narrates a number of accounts of men and boys being subjected to such assault. Speaking about the writing process, she shares, “At times, it was heartbreaking, especially when I wrote about incidents that haunt me to date. Sometimes, I felt extreme hope, as I wrote about the campaigns that helped us change lives. It was difficult to write, but if I could do it all over again, I would.”
Through MLNS, Sharma has understood that “change is not an overnight process.” Expressing uncertainty about whether the involvement of Indian actors on projects based on acid attack survivors has created a change in people’s mindsets, she concludes, “I do think that a plus point of the films is that it helps spread awareness about acid attacks and helps people learn what first aid tips to be used in such crisis.”