By Shatabdi Chakrabarti

A YOUNG woman is helping acid attack survivors in India by providing them with education, job prospects and medical and legal advice

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Videographer / director: Shams Qari
Producer: Shatabdi Chakrabarti, Nick Johnson
Editor: Sonia Estal

Ria was studying at Leeds University when her professor told her to document the rise of acid attacks in India

Make Love not Scars is a non governmental organisation was started by 21-year-old Ria Sharma.

The NGO works with acid attack survivors, rehabilitating them, providing them with an education and helping them with medical and legal advice.

She said: “While I was studying fashion at the Leeds College of Arts, I came across a picture of an acid attack survivor and it really moved me. I went and spoke to my professor about it. As I was due to give my final major project, my professor suggested that I should go back to India and shoot a documentary on the subject."

While shooting the documentary, Ria realised that there was a major lack of awareness and concrete help on the ground.

The NGO provides acid attack survivors with an education, work skills and medical and legal advice

She explained: “I knew that the documentary would help spread a lot of awareness in the West about this problem that we had in India. But I wasn’t convinced that it was going to save lives. So, I decided to take the name of my film, Make love not scars and turn it into a fully fledged organisation.”

Acid attacks in India have risen over the last few years, with estimates of a 1000 each year. However, as many go unreported, the on ground number of these attacks is likely to be double.

Ria believes that over the past few years, more people have started recognising acid as a form of weapon.

Mamta, Sapna and Basanti are grateful for the NGO
Sapna was 21 when attacked

The easy and cheap availability of acid in the form of cleaning products and the lack of hard sentencing for the perpetrators, has made this crime prominent.

Ria said: “In the past it was used for more of gender based violence to put the ‘woman in her place. But that is no longer the case in my opinion.

"The demographics when I started three years ago were extremely different. It was always a girl, aged between 16-25 and always a spurned lover who would commit the crime. But now, my youngest survivor is a six-month old baby boy, my oldest is a 65-year-old woman and in the middle, there are men and we have even had cases where animals have been attacked using acid.”

Basanti's life has changed since working with the NGO
21-year-old Ria founded Make Love Not Scars after seeing a picture of an acid attack survivor

Sapna a 24-year-old survivor and has been associated with the NGO for the past three years after being attacked in 2013.

She said: “My cousin’s brother in law committed the crime. He liked me and wanted to marry me. But I wasn’t ready as he was much older and I wanted to study more. So I refused. He first threatened me. But I still declined. That hurt his ego.”

Sapna reported the attack, which led to two males being convicted and imprisoned for 11 years.

Former beautician, Mamta, was attacked with acid in 2010
The attack resulted in her losing an eye

Working with Make Love Not Scars has helped Sapna come to terms with the aftermath of the attack and also given her a strong support system. Her family was also very supportive and stood by her.

She said: “When I was attacked I thought nothing good is going to happen now. I just thought that I will live in closed room. My father supported me a lot. I wasn’t even ready to fight the legal case, but he insisted that I do. I am even married now.”

Sapna has since learnt how to make jewellery and liquid soaps, which helps her earn money. At the moment she is learning English and also taking computer classes.

Ria has now started a campaign called #SkillsNotScars, under which the survivors present a video CV for potential employment opportunities.

Sapna has since learnt how to make jewellery and liquid soaps, which helps her earn money

Sapna explained: “The idea was that if we send someone a resume for a job they would tend to think that it would be a normal CV. But we made video CV because we are not like normal girls. We have been attacked. So, we wanted people to see us along with the CV."

Ria said: “The campaign has had a phenomenal response. It has created a lot of awareness and has sensitised people towards this issue. Employers are actually open to the possibility of hiring someone with disfigurement and for us, I think that’s a massive milestone in itself.”

Mamta, another survivor, used to work as a beautician. She was attacked with acid in 2010, resulting in her losing an eye.

Basanti has been learning English at Make Love Not Scars

She said: “After joining Make Love not Scars, I met other survivors like me. I have learnt so many things here. I am learning how to read and write English. We are going to have computer classes very soon. All of this is going to help me get back on my feet.”

The Indian Justice system has very strict laws and punishments in place for such crimes, but the system lacks implementation.

Ria said: “Very few survivors end up getting justice and it’s years and years later. They are entitled to a compensation from the government, which either gets stuck in paper work or they just don’t see the light of day.

Working with Make Love Not Scars has helped Sapna come to terms with the aftermath of the attack

"Another issue is that many of these cases are not reported due to fear of social stigma and victim blaming. And acid itself is so easily available.”

Four years ago, the Supreme Court of India had put a stop to over the counter sale of acid. But one can still buy a bottle easily in various parts of the country.

Sapna, Mamta and many survivors like them, who had once isolated themselves after the attacks, are now stepping out and finding a foot hold on their own, with Make Love not Scars being their support system.

As Mamta says: “Get up, hold yourselves up and walk again. This is called life.”

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