Ria Sharma of Make Love Not Scars has received global recognition for her work with acid attack victims.
Ria Sharma’s association with acid attack survivors goes all the way back to when she was a young college girl of 21. And now, the founder and CEO of Make Love Not Scars (MLNS) has been selected for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UNICEF Global Goals Award in the category of leadership for 2017. The event aired live on September 18 on the foundation's YouTube page.
“When I was studying at the Leeds College of Art in the UK, I stumbled across a photograph of an acid attack survivor. I was haunted by the image and stayed awake all night, just staring at the photo. I went to my professor, Suzy Mason, and she simply handed me a camera and told me to go back to India and shoot a documentary. I flew back to India in my final year of college and met my first survivor. However, I realised that while this documentary might help raise awareness, the survivors needed immediate help on the ground,” recalls Ria, who then left her university course to start MLNS in December 2014.
Though she admits to floundering around at first with the permits and donations, she soon found her footing. However, the challenges had just begun for Ria. “A key challenge I faced was getting was the stakeholders to trust me. I was 21 and in India, I had to fight to be taken seriously. Apart from that, I also struggled to get survivors their legal rights. The Indian government passed many laws to protect acid attack survivors. However, they are being denied these laws in implementation,” Ria explains, adding that she wanted to give up at times. “And that was when my survivors would spend hours on the phone, just telling me to keep moving forward because they believed in me and needed an organisation like MLNS,” she says.
One of the projects that the MLNS founder remembers proudly is their #EndAcidSale campaign. “It was a series of beauty tutorials featuring Reshma Qureshi. Through this campaign, not only did we wish to get people to sign the petition requesting the Government of India to ban over-the-counter sale of acid, but we also wished for people to recognise diversity in beauty standards. As a result of this campaign, Reshma also walked the ramp for New York Fashion Week,” she says with a smile. The other project that caught the attention of many was the #SkillsNotScars campaign, which is the world’s first job portal for acid attack survivors.
Now, as she finally holds international recognition in her hand in the form of an award, it is a feeling of gratefulness that engulfs the activist. “I feel extremely honoured that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and UNICEF decided to put their trust in me. As an activist, it is nothing short of a dream come true,” she says.
Despite having received such a prestigious award, Ria is not even thinking of slowing down. Her next project is already planned. “We plan to expand our rehabilitation centers to be spread across India and also wish to improve data collection related to acid attacks in India since the data is currently not accurate. We eventually may aim to help women who have been burnt with kerosene oil, etc. in domestic abuse situations when we have the bandwidth and capacity to do so, because those numbers are incredibly high,” she signs off.