Meet the 26-year-old helping acid attack survivors rebuild their lives
By providing skill training and aid
In 2014, Delhi girl Ria Sharma was studying fashion design at the Leeds College of Arts, England. For her final year project, she turned her focus on the pressing issue of violence against women in India—a decision that became a turning point in her life. “I happened to stumble across a picture of an acid attack survivor that triggered a range of emotions in me that I did not know I possessed,” she recounts. Armed with a video camera, she decided to return to the country to shoot a documentary on the subject, titled Make Love Not Scars. “The day I visited the first government hospital’s burns ward in Bangalore, it dawned on me that a documentary was not going to bring immediate on-ground help,” she says. The very next day, Ria abandoned the idea of making a documentary, registered Make Love Not Scars as an NGO and took up social activism at the age of 21.
Photograph: Vinit Bhatt
In the last five years, Make Love Not Scars has helped over 60 acid attack survivors get back on their feet by providing them with medical and legal aid, as well as skill and vocational training. Moreover, the NGO has spearheaded the #EndAcidSale campaign, which called for a ban on the open sale of acid. It resulted in the Supreme Court enforcing a ban on over-the-counter sale of acid in 2015.
According to Ria, one of the biggest misconceptions people have about acid attack survivors is that they that just because they look different, they actually might be. “The stigma that surrounds disfigurement because of this notion is something that the survivors fight very hard to overcome. We try to sensitise the public through awareness campaigns to show people that, at the end of the day, they are just like you and me. People also think that the survivors might be weak. The reality is actually the opposite,” Ria asserts.
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Thanks to her activism, Ria has been at the receiving end of death threats. Despite that, she’s stuck to her mission and draws inspiration from the survivors she works with. “What started as an obsession with the strength of the survivors snowballed into friendship pretty quickly. In the beginning, I found it extremely hard to cope with the things that I was seeing. There was misery, incomprehensible burns and death. At that point, the only people I could talk to were the survivors themselves, who understood the impact such a sight could have on you. I have never known a support system like that, nor seen such unconditional love. I keep going because you don’t give up on the people that you love,” she says.
Now, Ria has penned a memoir, Make Love Not Scars, which was launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019. “My memoir is written from the perspective of a 21-year-old girl who never thought she could do anything impactful. Not only does the memoir take you through the world of acid attacks but also captures the fears and insecurities that every young Indian girl has about being taken seriously,” Ria shares. Since her life is directly intertwined with those of the survivors, the reader will get an honest look into what it takes to bring about change and overcome obstacles in the process. “It’s got a hint of dark humour too that others might find slightly offensive, but hey, it’s written exactly the way things unfolded and I’ve learnt from my survivors that when we choose to laugh in the face of our fears, they cease to exist,” she says. The book also narrates the stories of survivors that changed Ria’s life.
Deepika Padukone’s next movie will see her portray an acid attack survivor in Meghna Gulzar’s Chaapak—a bold choice for a leading Bollywood actor and Ria is super excited about it. “Only when these issues are portrayed commercially can we hope that some sort of empathy will be triggered in society. I can’t wait to show the movie to my survivors so that they can gain strength from knowing that things will change and that society will be more accepting of them one day,” Ria says.
Featured photograph: Atelier Mon and Nayantara Parikh