By Ria Sharma

07 September 2016 - 17:31

'Life won't be the same as the one they knew before the attack, but we try to help them adjust to a new life'. Ria Sharma (right) with victim of an acid attack. Photo ©

Make Love Not Scars.

Why are so many women in India victims of acid attacks, and what's being done about it? Ria Sharma, winner of the Social Impact category in the Alumni Awards India 2016, and founder of Make Love Not Scars, explains.

What is the situation in India regarding acid attacks on women?

A reported 1,000 people are attacked with acid in India every year. I want to emphasise 'reported' because, from experience, most of the cases I have worked with go unreported. Keeping that fact in mind, I estimate the actual number of acid attacks to be much higher. Many victims choose not to report the crimes committed against them. There are two main reasons for this: first, the fear of social stigma; second, the involvement of a family member (a lot of survivors are attacked by their own spouse or someone from the family because of land or money feuds). But it's not only women who are victims of acid attacks. In the past year, I have seen an increase in the use of acid as a weapon against men, babies and even animals (the latter as a form of pest control).

Why are so many women the victims of acid attacks in India?

India has an obsession with beauty. A person's place in society (and especially a woman's place) is often set by their appearances. Men, on the other hand, are largely judged by their financial success. These outdated notions stem from a male-dominated society. As women try to break the mould of what society 'expects' them to be, there are bound to be negative consequences.

Perhaps the most vital aspect of breaking free of male domination is having the power and choice to say 'no'. Most acid attacks are committed by spurned and jilted lovers: when a woman denies the man’s advances, he attacks her with acid to disfigure (and sometimes kill) her, and to 'teach her a lesson' by ruining her standing in society. The 'victim-blaming' mentality that plagues our society means the attacker succeeds in his mission, impelled by the belief that 'If I can't have her, no one can'. In most cases, due to our obsession with beauty, he is proved right. He may have been the one to attack her but we, as a society, allow him to succeed in his vicious intentions.

What happens to the women and after these attacks? What happens to the perpetrators?

Most of these women are not aware of their rights because they come from poor backgrounds and are uneducated. This makes it especially hard for them to get access to fast, appropriate and high-quality medical attention. The result is that, for the majority, the damage is almost irreversible, with 70 per cent of survivors losing their vision. Most women are left permanently disfigured and disabled as well. They are also almost instantly isolated and alienated from a society that forces them to deal with their ordeals silently and behind closed doors. An acid attack also unleashes a massive financial burden on the family as they struggle to collect funds to save the woman’s life and vital functions by selling their belongings.

Once the family deals with the initial round of surgeries, they can seek justice. But due to the agonisingly slow pace at which the Indian judicial system works, the survivor almost never gets justice. Indeed, the perpetrator usually gets away with ruining someone’s life at no cost to their own. Even in cases where the survivor manages to fight her case in court, the process can take years and years. Although survivors are entitled to compensation from the government, too often this compensation never comes. The lawyers the state appoints often have little interest in the case, greatly limiting the chances of success. As a result, some survivors drop the case due to growing costs and the decreasing likelihood of a positive outcome.

At Make Love Not Scars, we look into all of the above aspects and aim to ensure free medical attention by either crowdfunding the treatment costs or finding an individual funder. We also have partners who provide free legal assistance to help victims fight their lengthy legal battles. We take care of the girls that are under our care, but the problem is that not all survivors find an organisation like ours to help them. They often have to face these challenges alone.

Can the victims ever fully recover and go on to lead normal lives?

The physical damage varies from case to case based on the severity of burns. Being a survivor of an acid attack is one of the hardest things to be because of the recovery process. Eyelid reconstruction and other surgery necessary for saving vital functions like vision come first before the cosmetic (plastic) surgery begins. Survivors undergo surgery for anywhere between two to ten years depending on how much they want to get done. There are some survivors who have suffered extensive burns and have undergone 45 surgeries, before stopping because of the toll it takes on them. Then there are survivors who give up after two or three surgeries because they can’t bear the pain. It really does differ from case to case, but the recovery process is both lengthy and extremely devastating – it's not only physical, it’s psychological too. A lot of the survivors suffer personality disorders because they can't recognise themselves anymore, and many fight depression every day because of what has happened. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and wake up in the middle of the night believing they're being attacked.

These women will never get back their identity and the face they have lost, but it's our mission to instil the confidence and skills necessary for them to re-enter society and live relatively normal lives. Life won't be the same as the one they knew before the attack, but we try to help them adjust to a new life. Once they reach that stage, they can start to think about who they want to be. Their journeys are inspiring regardless, but it's on reaching this stage that we see the stuff that all great stories and heroes are made of.

What are the different attitudes to acid attacks and violence against women in India?

I would say the way people perceive acid attacks falls into two categories. First, there are those who blame the girl or the woman for what has happened to her, even though she was the victim of someone else’s anger, ego and hate. These people do their best to prevent these women from moving on. They adopt an attitude that says 'she must have something wrong to deserve what’s happened to her'. But how can anyone ever do anything to deserve this? Then comes the other part of society that accepts these women and wants to see their attackers behind bars. But this is the minority view, and the first mentality usually prevails, making it very hard for these women to lead normal lives.

Various factors can explain the difference in these attitudes ranging from a lack of education, outdated concepts of what a woman should be, and a misunderstanding of what 'culture' actually means, and a woman’s place in it. In Indian culture and heritage, a woman is an object that is 'pure', 'untouched', 'obedient' and 'submissive', among other things that don’t make too much sense. It's eye-opening to see the amount of people who still think this way and believe in these outdated concepts.

What can be done to tackle the problem on a larger scale?

Make Love Not Scars is currently running a very large campaign called #EndAcidSale, to ban the open sale of acid in India. We have been campaigning for a year with the aim of one day making acid unavailable to the common man. Although it's vital to keep helping the survivors, we also have to tackle the root cause of why these attacks are happening. The mentality of the attackers is something we cannot change over night, but we can make it harder for them to procure the weapon. As of now, buying acid in India is as easy as buying make-up – you can get it in almost any shop as it's sold under the pretext of being a bathroom cleaning detergent. It's cheap and readily available, and attacking someone with acid is as easy as throwing a glass of water in someone's face. Banning the open sale of acid will decrease the number of acid attacks significantly.

How did your time studying fashion at Leeds College of Art set you on this path?

Right from the start, my professors recognised my passion for women's rights and helped me incorporate it into my fashion degree. I was able to draw on my experiences of India in all my modules and projects in the first two years. In my last semester of college, I went back to India to shoot a documentary on the issue – something my professors made possible by agreeing to let me complete attendance and weekly tutorials via Skype. It was during one of these tutorials that they discovered I was interested in doing more than just shooting the documentary. They supported my every move and told me to follow my instincts. Because of this, I was able to submit a fully functional organisation as my final major project in the third year. If it wasn’t for their encouragement and faith, Make Love Not Scars wouldn’t exist today.

What challenges have you faced since devoting yourself to this cause?

When I started out, a lot of people didn’t take me seriously because of my age and appearance (I’m five foot nothing). Also, my own good fortune compared to the lives of these women was an issue, but I was able to turn the attention away from me and towards the women I represented using social media. There was also the emotional trauma at the start, but I soon realised that the survivors were the only ones entitled to that.

Setting up the organisation and making it functional was challenging because I knew no one in the field. But I have found that when passion takes over, the will to learn and apply yourself grows to an extent you didn’t think possible. From there, nothing can hold you back, not even the lack of knowledge. I've spent countless nights reading court judgements, researching cases, studying new medical technologies, and so on. I wouldn't normally be interested in such things, but my desire to know and understand the issues in detail is what drove me on.

You’re planning to visit New York Fashion Week in September with one of the acid attack victims, who will be walking on the runway. What do you hope to get out of the experience?

Yes! Reshma, the face of my #EndAcidSale campaign, will be walking the ramp for production house FTL MODA in September. It is such a joyous time and a personal victory for all of us. We have tried to get Reshma on the cover of fashion magazines, and to get them to abandon conventional beauty standards. We've been shunned away previously, but this appearing at this event is a big win against those who believe it's OK to perceive beauty in only one way. It's an amazing opportunity to show that beauty is not only skin deep; that there's beauty in strength and courage.

You can find out more about this issue by visiting Make Love Not Scars or following the campaign on Facebook. You can give your support using the hashtag #EndAcidSale.

Did you, or someone you know, study in the UK and go on to achieve great things? Apply yourself, or nominate someone else for the Alumni Awards 2017 from 7 September 2016. The deadline for nominations is 16 October 2016, and 31 October 2016 for applications.

Find out the latest via #AlumniAwards2017 on Twitter.

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