By Saanya Gulati:
Ria Sharma, whilst in her final semester at Leeds College of Arts was moved by the Oscar-winning documentary film Saving Face, which documents the experience of acid attack survivors in Pakistan. She says, “I knew I would forget about it the next day, but IÂ didn’tÂ want to forget about it.”Â She wanted to do something about it.
The Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) estimates that thousands take place in India every year. Ria was keen to complete her final-year project on this issue through a documentary film. She was encouraged by the positive response of her professors, and was given permission by her college to return to India. She is completing her final semester through Skype tutorials.
What started out as a college project evolved into a lot more than Ria could have imagined. She traveled to Bangalore on a whim, where she met two of the survivors that she had reached out to while at Leeds. Despite everything they had been through, they maintained a positive outlook toward life. She was particularly inspired by one of the survivors who lost her vision due to the attack, but works a government job, and even counsels other survivors.
The project has now evolved into a movement called ‘Make Love Not Scars.’ Today, there are 10 members who are completely dedicated toward the cause. ‘They have other jobs, and so cannot work full-time, but they are just a call away when I need their support’, Ria assures.
The movement relies heavily on volunteers who contribute their time and skills in different ways. People with a creative background, especially photography and video, or those who are good writers can help with the website. “We are always looking for people to come and spend time with the survivors,” she adds. “They love spending time with new people.”
The website is not about the organisation, but an initiative to spread awareness about the heinous crimes of acid attacks, share, and continuously update the stories and journey of survivors. Eventually, Ria envisions that survivors entering a weekly video journal on the website. “I want people to be able to connect with these survivors of acid attacks the way that I have managed to,” she explains.
Make Love Not Scars has raised funds through specific campaigns for immediate medical assistance and to rehabilitate survivors of acid attacks. But more importantly, it seeks to create a community for survivors of acid attacks to connect with each other. “More than counseling, they [survivors of acid attacks] understand each other the best,” she says.
The road ahead is long. The organisation is in the process of filing a petition to amend the existing laws under which the government provides rehabilitation to survivors of acid attacks. Currently, there are many challenges with the implementation of the law. Despite being entitled to compensation within the first 15-days of the attack, many of the survivors are either unaware of their rights, and those who apply for the compensation do not receive it in the required time frame.