We sat down with Yahoo.in for an in depth conversation on acid attacks!

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You know that feeling when you’re applying lipstick and someone nudges you accidentally smudging your lipstick? Or that feeling of cutting yourself by mistake while shaving? It’s exasperating, isn’t it? These are temporary scars that can be wiped out. But imagine if someone intentionally chooses to disfigure your face with acid such that it can never be reversed. How should the victim really emote or how would you describe that feeling?

The Internet defines ‘acid throwing’, also called an acid attack, as ‘a form of violent assault or which involves the act of throwing acid or a similarly corrosive substance onto the body of another with the intention to disfigure, maim, torture or kill. It sounds so disturbing that most people who read about it shy away from exploring the subject further.

A few bravehearts exist who venture out to explore the grim world of acid attack victims. One such warrior is UNESCO Leadership Award winner Ria Sharma. She is the founder of Make Love Not Scars (MLNS), an organisation that actively supports survivors of acid attacks physically and mentally, and campaigns to raise awareness on the issue.

Ria is also the author of the book by the same name ‘Make Love Not Scars’, which is a sincere attempt at unveiling the spine-chilling stories of victims for the world to know and acknowledge.

In conversation with ChaitraAnand, the 26-year-old young achiever Ria Sharma, breaks myths about acid attack and its victims, and introduces a parallel world built on resilience and hope and a little help from those who have the ability to empathise.

Q: Acid attack is an equally heinous crime like rape. But do you think there is little awareness or empathy about it in India? What should be done to change that perspective?

Ria: Acid attacks are very underreported and survivors are not acknowledged as much as they should be. The social stigma that surrounds acid attacks speaks volumes about us collectively as a society. Acid attacks predominantly occur because we, as a society, judge our women based on their appearances and less on their capabilities.

This mindset of society empowers the attacker to think that he/she is right in believing that if he ruins a woman’s face, then her standing in society is forever ruined. The attacker thinks in this manner because it is truly what happens.

After an attack, the survivor is isolated, often rejected by family and friends who subscribe to the ‘blame the victim’ ideology that ‘she must have done something to deserve this’. The fact that survivors are abandoned, not given jobs in order to earn livelihoods are all further proof that there isn’t enough awareness about the cause. Awareness is what is needed in order to educate and sensitise people towards the cause so that society can be more accepting of the survivors. Only through awareness will people empathise with the survivors.

Q: Your book sums up heart-wrenching stories of few of the victims in 200 pages. Can you elaborate? What were the challenges on ground?

Ria: Considering I’ve never written before, I found it hard to pen down struggles of victims in the most touching manner. The book was strictly written with the aim to spread awareness on the cause. Having said that, I still believe I haven’t been able to do justice to the plight of the survivors, the lack of implementation of laws, the effects this has on the lives of the survivors and the social stigma that prevents survivors from moving forward.

I believe that I haven’t been able to capture the true moments of agony, the talks of suicide, the treatment from society and the denial of justice. The long battles in court when survivors are forced to come face to face with the attackers and then ridiculed by the defence; the countless times they are denied justice just on the basis of bad representation. There is so much that still needs to be written about, so much that deserves our attention and 200 pages just wasn’t enough for me to cover all of it.

Q: How many victims have you rehabilitated so far? What are the stages involved?

Ria: Make Love Not Scars has rehabilitated over 60 acid attack survivors and has helped them with various stages of rehabilitation. Since every case is different and poses its own obstacles, we have to innovate each time and the same strategy cannot be applied to every case. Each survivor comes with different degrees of burns and rehabilitation truly depends on what stage of their journey we meet them at.

For example if we take a fresh case that has just occurred, we would first concentrate on life and organ saving medical procedures while simultaneously trying to help them obtain their government compensation. However, if we were to take up a case that was relatively old, our priorities would be different since the survivor would need no immediate medical intervention. For such a case, we would concentrate on identifying what the survivor would want to do in the future and work towards making that a reality.

Q: Within a span of 5-6 years, you are the proud recipient of several prestigious awards including the United Nations Goalkeepers Global Award for 2017. How much of difference do these awards make and how does it help further the cause?

Ria: The way that I see awards is that they provide us with a platform to reach a larger audience and network. This helps us spread awareness on the cause and also often helps open doors for collaborations and funding. When Make Love Not Scars is recognised, it means that people are hearing about our work and hence hearing about acid attacks. It is humbling to know that we are on the right path, creating enough noise and are being noticed.

Q: What are the common misconceptions about acid attack? What are all the types of acids freely available across the counter and how should this be checked?

Ria: The most common misconception about acid attacks is that it can’t happen to you. When a substance that is so freely and openly available, which makes allowance for such an easy yet devastating crime, there’s no reason you couldn’t be next. I know this sounds a little harsh, but with acid attacks on the rise and the easy availability of acid, this could literally happen to anyone.

Acid is freely sold under the guise of toilet cleaners in the market. A cap full of acid is diluted into a bucket of water to clean tiles and pots. It is normally sold for Rs 30 a litre. According to the Supreme Court of India, the sale of acid was regulated in 2013 and required the buyer to provide identification and purpose of use before purchasing. Like any other law that is passed in our country, this too, never saw any proper implementation and acid till date, is freely sold in the market.

It is important for all of us as citizens to hold our governments responsible, to demand that our laws be implemented and continue to strive to create a safe community. If you see a vendor selling acid, report it! Follow up on your report and ensure that the vendor is brought to justice. If this vendor sells acid to an attacker and someone is attacked with it, you are equally to blame for turning a blind eye to it. We cannot only rely on NGO’s to see this change come about, we all need to do our part and be responsible citizens.

Q: What are the campaigns you have run so far and what type of response has it received?

Ria: We run a host of crowd funding campaigns that collect funds for surgeries, survivors children’s education and our rehabilitation centre. These campaigns help us involve our followers in the cause. You do not have to donate a large amount of money to help someone. We always emphasise that every last rupee counts.

Apart from monitory campaigns we also run awareness campaigns that normally come with a call to action. Our #EndAcidSale campaign that was created with Ogilvy and Mather aimed at enforcing the ban on the open sale of acid. The campaign saw global recognition and triggered a much-needed global dialogue on acid attacks. The petition that demanded the implementation of the ban was signed by over 300,900 signatures and was also sent to the PMO, but was not met with a formal response. Though the petition was not fully successful at ensuring ban of acid, it did start a conversation, one that still holds good and is talked about.

Q: Why it is commonly perceived to be a crime only against women? Men suffer from this crime too. Give us an insight into what strata of society is most affected by acid attacks.

Ria: Acid attacks stem from a mentality where the attacker believes ‘if I cant have her, no one can’. Acid attacks are normally a ploy by the attacker to ruin a woman’s standing in society by stealing her identity and making her less attractive. When I first started the organisation in 2014, acid attacks were a form of gender based violence. My cases were repetitive in terms of motive(normally a spurned lover), the survivor was normally always a girl aged 13-30 and the attacker was normally always male.

The easy availability of acid and the ease of committing the crime, which is as simple as throwing a glass of water on someone got me thinking. I was apprehensive about spreading awareness because at the back of my mind I believed that there was a very thin line between spreading awareness and planting an idea into someone’s head. I wanted to put an end to acid attacks as a form of gender based violence and didn’t want to see it spiral into a problem which no longer had anything to do with just one gender. But my fears slowly but surely, started taking form.

We started seeing a rise in acid attacks that were committed on men. We started receiving cases of babies being attacked because they were caught in a feud between adults, we started seeing people being attacked to intimidate land settlements etc. Animals were being attacked and acid was being used as a form of pest control. The situation really spiralled out of control and today, the demographics are very different. A majority of them come from underprivileged backgrounds where there is a lack of education and no emphasis or awareness of equal rights. We have also noticed a lower value for life in these communities, frequent exposure to crimes and little to no fear of consequences.

Q: What steps had the government already established to ensure protection of rights of the victims? Why is it so difficult to bring these rights into effect?

Ria: According to the law an acid attack survivor is entitled to government compensation. The compensation amount often varies from state to state but the bare minimum is a total of 3 lakh rupees. The survivor is entitled to the first instalment of 1.5 lakh rupees in the first 15 days after the attack and the entire 3 lakhs should be made available to her no later than the first month after the attack. The survivor is also entitled to free of cost treatment at government and private hospitals. A supreme court judgment also states that private hospitals cannot even cite something as genuine as ‘lack of beds’ to not admit the patient. More recently, the survivors have been allowed to apply for disability quotas. The government has also pledged to help survivors obtain government jobs.

In theory all of this sounds wonderful, but to be honest, hardly any of this really ever implemented. In a country where cases drag on for years after the complainants deaths, basic human rights are treated lightly, where laws are created just to pacify the public, one cannot expect such life saving laws to be easily implemented without a fight.

Q: How do you sustain an NGO such as this where only a few truly empathise with the cause. What kind of financial help do you receive from the government and even individuals? And what is the level of competition to tackle?

Ria: We receive no help from the government and rely on our social media funders to empathise and donate. Apart from this we also have a few corporate funders that we are thankful for! There is often competition in this field, like there is in any other. Unfortunately we have had to deal with negative competition in the past. Some NGO’s and individuals are not often in it for the right reasons and want to make a quick buck. When you try to involve yourself in those sort of situations and help, even though your intentions might be good, these individuals are bound to create obstacles because you are coming in their way of pocketing funds. but we believe as long as our hands and books are clean and we know why we do what we do, it’s easy to move past and continue to concentrate.

Q: What can be done to overcome the taboo of coexisting with acid attack survivors? In terms of employment, how can the scenario be changed?

Ria: I always say that if society could be more accepting, then, half our jobs would be done. Instead of shunning people with disfigurement, we need to make them feel accepted. Our beauty standards and what we deem beautiful in general needs to be redefined and this wont just help acid attack survivors. From an early age the adage ‘do not judge a book by its cover’ should be drummed into the psyche of children. Older generations need to be taught to abandon their archaic mindsets in order to create a more accepting and open minded society.

Q: What other organisations does MLNS work along with? Who are the celebrities that have come forward to further the cause and how much of a difference does this make?

Ria: We work closely with Meer foundation that is run by Shah Rukh Khan. Their efforts to help acid attack survivors have been unparalleled and Mr. Khan’s voice has been instrumental in raising awareness. Even though we wish more celebrities would come forward and raise their voices and use their platforms to help spread awareness (on a consistent basis), not a lot of them do.

Q: What are the future plans for Make Love Not Scars? What is your message those seeking to help and even those who shy away from addressing the elephant in the room?

Ria: Make Love Not Scars plans to continue its advocacy and focus more on working with the authorities to create seamless processes. Apart from just working with acid attacks, we want to expand and help survivors of any kind of burns that are not self-inflicted. MLNS also aims to set up more rehabilitation centre across India so that we can reach more survivors in need.

My message to those who want to help is simple— change begins at home and you do not have to quit your day job in order to help. Pick up any cause close to your heart, help out on weekends, dedicate a little bit of time and see how you can take small steps to create change in your immediate community. Tutor your house help’s child in your free time, put out a bowl of water for stray dogs in the summer, donate blood every now and then, be vocal on social media, trigger dialogues and get people talking, it really can be that simple. Do anything but please, don’t do nothing about things that matter.