A new case came in, and Ria Sharma had her hands full. A two-year-old boy had been discovered naked in a dumpster, his left side doused in acid and his flesh eaten away. Sharma busied herself with filing police reports and raising funds. It was a struggle just to get the toddler admitted to the intensive care unit.
The challenges have become a normal part of Sharma’s life, though. She is the founder of Make Love Not Scars, a youth initiative dedicated to rehabilitating acid-attack survivors. The group is based in India, where as many as 1,000 acid attacks happen each year.
Pouring acid on someone can do far more than disfigure them. It can melt away eyes and drip down noses and throats, causing internal damage. Many victims end up disabled, facing lifelong health problems. That’s where Make Love Not Scars steps in: to support survivors as they deal with medical, legal and social hurdles.
Over the past two years, the group has turned into an online sensation, thanks in large part to its video campaigns on social media. They portray acid-attack survivors dabbing on makeup for YouTube tutorials, dreaming aloud of their ideal careers and cracking jokes on the job. In short, living ordinary lives in the digital age.
That sense of normalcy was key to Sharma’s vision. “That’s what we’re trying to do, to be honest: to show society that these women, these men, these children are no different from you and me,” she told ivoh during a break in her hectic morning. “I wanted the world to break out of the ignorance that once plagued me.”
She remembers being “extremely, extremely nervous” the first time she spoke to an acid-attack survivor. At the time, Sharma was a 21-year-old fashion student attending Leeds College of Arts in the U.K. Her interest in fashion waning, she found herself drawn to a photograph of a woman scarred by acid.
“At that time, I couldn’t understand how something as simple as throwing a glass of liquid on someone could cause that much lasting damage,” she recalls.
That photo gave her a jolt of inspiration. Why not make a documentary about acid attacks? Sharma started reaching out to survivors, hoping to establish contacts.
But the first phone call she made didn’t go as planned. The survivor just sounded so chirpy.
“That, for some odd reason, caught me off guard. I didn’t know if I expected her to get on the phone with me and cry or react badly or something,” Sharma said. “But she was so normal, just like you and me.” They ended up chatting less about the attack and more about everything under the sun, like old friends would.
During her last semester, Sharma left for her native India to start filming. But, she soon grew dissatisfied with the scope of her project. “A documentary wasn’t going to help them. They needed concrete, immediate attention,” she said.
So her plans evolved from creating a simple documentary to launching a full-scale NGO. The transition wasn’t easy, though. Sharma, now 24, says her age and diminutive height made it difficult for prospective business partners to take her seriously.
But that, in and of itself, became a “massive driving force” in her work, she said. She built an army of volunteers that helped her with hospital visits and fundraising campaigns, and eventually larger partners came onboard. Her online videos used to be filmed by photography students. Now, an international advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, works with them pro bono.
Their latest series, “Skills Not Scars,” is a collection of video CVs designed to get acid-attack survivors hired. Each one features a different woman describing her dream career: to host a radio show, work as a beautician, or take care of children.
All the videos, however, share the same ending. The acid-attack survivor looks into the camera and admits that she could have simply sent out a written resume. But the point, they all say, is that you see their faces, scars and all.
“The girls you see appear on your screen are girls who are so fed up by this notion that they should be kept behind closed doors,” Sharma said. “They don’t want to hide their faces, because they didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
Some of the women didn’t always feel that way though, Sharma added. Only a year ago, a few were adamant they’d never show their face on-camera.
But when one of the women, Reshma Qureshi, adopted a more visible role in the organization, other survivors took notice. Qureshi starred in a series of makeup tutorials that compared the price of acid to the price of cosmetics. Then, she stomped the runway at New York Fashion Week. Her appearances served as an inspiration to her fellow survivors. “They empowered each other,” Sharma said.
Finding work can be difficult for those marked with the deep, unfading scars that acid can cause. The wounds are often interpreted as a sign of loose morals, particularly for women, who comprise the majority of victims.
That’s partly because the most common story behind acid attacks has to do with romantic rejection. The attacker may be a neighbor whose sexual advances were spurned, a jealous husband, or even the sister of a man whose marriage proposal was denied.
Like rape victims, acid-attack survivors sometimes face scrutiny over whether their actions prompted the attack, as if their moral failings were to blame all along.
“When these survivors go out to gain employment, the employers automatically assume she did something to deserve this. Why would someone do this to her if she didn’t deserve it?” Sharma said.
That stigma made Sharma wary about pursuing a different sort of video project: this time, a comedic skit with Buzzfeed India. The script was conceived as a light-hearted take on how “work BFFs” can communicate at the office without uttering a single word.
It called for its costars — Mamta, an acid-attack survivor, and Tanmay Bhat, a popular Indian comedian — to chitchat about office crushes, insufferable colleagues and getting tired after a long day at work.
The problem was, what was otherwise ordinary office banter could have reflected badly on someone as stigmatized as an acid-attack survivor. “I didn’t want the survivor to be perceived in a wrong way,” Sharma said. “At the same time, this is what happens, this is how all of us talk. There’s nothing wrong in that.” So she pressed on with the project. “Thankfully it turned out okay.”
In the weeks since the skit and the video CVs were posted, Make Love Not Scars has received over 60 job offers for its survivors, Sharma says. She also sees the videos as striking a blow to the attackers, who hoped their victim “would lose her standing in society.”
“If after an attack, society is welcoming of these girls, then everything the attacker set out to do wouldn’t come true,” Sharma explains. The video campaigns are her way of building the awareness necessary for acceptance.
But that need goes far beyond India’s borders. Acid attacks are growing increasingly common in other parts of the world, including Colombia and the United Kingdom, where acid attacks nearly doubled in the span of a decade. As Sharma warns, “There’s nothing stopping this from happening to you or me.”