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My personal troubles seem far too trivial: Make Love Not Scars founder Ria Sharma

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My personal troubles seem far too trivial: Make Love Not Scars founder Ria Sharma

Ria Sharma's non-profit helps acid attack victims bounce back.

Ria Sharma, 26, is the founder of the non-profit Make Love Not Scars (MLNS). In 2014, when it was launched, MLNS set up what Sharma calls "the world's first rehab centre for acid attack victims."

Since then, it has helped rehabilitate more than 60 acid attack survivors and worked towards increasing awareness about acid attacks in India and controls on the sale of acid. The rehabilitation work it takes up works at multiple levels.

On the medical front, it entails raising funds for surgeries, post-operative care and medicines. At the legal level, it takes the form of connecting survivors with the country's leading pro-bono lawyers. But a major thrust of the rehab efforts, says Sharma, is helping survivors recover on the psychological and social realms through empowerment.

"When a victim faces disfigurement after an acid attack, we need to address the physical trauma as well as long-term psychological trauma. Then comes the task of helping them regain their confidence. We do this through a module where we impart skills training. We fund their education and help them enroll in courses that will facilitate regular income," she explains.

Three years ago the MLNS campaign #EndAcidSale won a Gold Cannes Lion in the film category. In 2017, Sharma became the first Indian to receive the United Nations Bill and Melinda Gates GoalKeepers Global Goals Award.

And earlier this year, she penned a memoir about her journey and creating an organisation that works with acid attack victims. Looking ahead, Sharma says the organisation may expand in other areas of gender-based violence and burn victims.

Excerpts from an interview:

What is the extent and frequency of acid attack victims in the country?

The official numbers are difficult to quote. Over the past years, we have filed RTIs, but the numbers just don't add up. There is massive underreporting owing to the stigma attached to it. In 2014 a BBC survey said India sees a thousand acid attack victims a year. But our hospital visits show the numbers are perhaps much higher.

The language of the book is non-ornamental, even simplistic. Is that deliberate?

What inspired the book were the survivors themselves. I was witnessing a lot of incidents documented in the book. At that time, I was writing them down to cope with the situations. For me it was a form of release. When I was first meeting acid attack victims, I was 21. So the language is in a narrative voice most people can relate to. My NGO was launched when I was 21, so a lot of the book was written by a 21-year-old. I have retained that language so that a girl my age can also pick it up and feel inspired by my story.

You dropped out of a fashion design course in the Leeds College of Art to set up an NGO, what is the biggest lesson you've learnt along the way?

As a person, it puts a lot of things in perspective. When you see people going through so much, you realise the troubles you are going through are so trivial. It has taught me not to judge a book by its cover. I am definitely not that shallow anymore, which is a personal victory.I have also become more compassionate.

Are hospitals outside our metropolitan cities equipped to deal with acid attack victims?

Not at all, particularly those in tier-2 cities. A victim who has been attacked in a village may end up receiving treatment only after 5-6 hours. Even bigger hospitals in our cities have a shortage of beds.