Acid throwing, also called an acid attack, a vitriol attack or vitriol age, is a form of violent assault defined as the act of throwing acid or a similarly corrosive substance onto the body of another “with the intention to disfigure, maim, torture, or kill.”Perpetrators of these attacks throw acid at their victims, usually at their faces, burning them, and damaging skin tissue, often exposing and sometimes dissolving the bones. The most common types of acid used in these attacks are sulfuric and nitric acid. Hydrochloric acid is sometimes used, but is much less damaging. The long term consequences of these attacks may include blindness, as well as permanent scarring of the face and body, along with far-reaching social, psychological, and economic difficulties.
Ria Sharma is the founder of MLNS. She graduated from Leeds College Of Art in 2014. Make Love Not Scars was initially a college project she was working on but one thing led to another and the organisation was born. She is currently based in Delhi and has devoted her life in the service of the survivors. Her story in her own words will give a better understanding of her thought process, work and vision.
I want to introduce you to an experience and the new age of charity. I started Make Love Not Scars about a year ago and I know that this number is not very encouraging but I’m hoping that by the end of this document you would be convinced of our dedication. Make Love Not Scars started of as just an idea for a documentary a year ago. The concept was simple, we wanted to make a documentary that showcased the lives of acid attack survivors in India. While we were making this documentary something changed, we came cross multiple survivors that were yet to receive help. Not knowing much about the sector, we put together a team of young individuals from different walks of life determined to make a difference. We managed to garner the interest of the youth in a very short span of time and before we knew it we were tackling multiple areas of rehabilitation. Even though the first couple of months were a hit and miss process, they proved to be extremely fruitful. “Where there is a will, there is a way” is a quote that has played a big role in the making of Make Love Not Scars. Initially not knowing how to reach survivors in remote villages, we still managed to find our way by being open to link up with other organisations in the vicinity. A team of educated young adults, we made sure we were well informed and advised at every stage. After we realised the documentary wasn’t actually going to become a reality, we came to a bigger realisation. The fact that we helped so many girls on the pretext of just making a film was motivation enough to set up an organisation. Since we have been in practice and even before that we have had various successful campaigns that have had unique goals not just focusing on one aspect of rehabilitation. We have also been able to set up a programme called the “buddy system”. The buddy system enables our volunteers to help create a support system for our survivors by just being there for them. This system ensures a more personalised volunteering experience which not only enables the volunteer to grow as a human being but to also help the survivor not feel lonely. Since the government refused to set up a nodal point, we decided to be that nodal point. We made it our duty to reach out to fresh cases across India to inform them of their rights and to let them know that we could help. Whether it was obtaining the initial government compensation or raising funds for their treatment, we made sure we had all the answers.
The medical phase in an acid attack survivor’s life literally last a lifetime. If you ask me why I first started working with the cause my answer would be extremely simple. “could you imagine waking up one day and not recognising yourself?”. If that wasn’t bad enough, could you imagine waking up blind or worse, abandoned by society? In India, it is a curse like no other to be surrounded by social stigma and sadly disfigurement is something that comes with maximum social stigma. Disfigurement is something that only attracts so much attention because people do not understand it hence they are scared of it. At Make Love Not Scars it is our first priority to make sure the survivor of an acid attack receives adequate medical attention. We not only source the right plastic surgeon in the region but also fund shifting the patient to a more equipped location if need be. Since a lot of attacks take place in remote villages that are short of specialised medical attention we make it a point to try and find the closest suitable hospital equipped to deal with such extensive burns. Acid, unlike other burns works differently on the human body. Normal burns when put out stop penetrating through the skin. Acid is a substance that continues to penetrate through all the seven layers of skin over a period of time. We have had survivors that have been alright for 6 months and 7 months later they wake up from a nights sleep to only realise that the acid has worked its way through their eye lids over night to leave them blind. The recovery period for an acid attack survivor differs on the amount and potency of acid they were attacked with. The medical procedures last almost a lifetime because after the initial life saving round of surgery, the survivor then continues to the reconstructive phase of their journey. Reconstructive plastic surgery in the normal world refers to something very different than what it does in this world. A nose job is not only to make the survivors look presentable but in most cases is also to ensure that the survivor can breath normally. An ear reconstruction doesn’t just provide for an acceptable looking ear, it also ensures that that the survivor can hear normally again. An eyelid reconstruction is one of the most crucial surgeries that we concentrate on because even though the government considers it to be reconstructive they don’t realise that it’s the function of a batting eyelid that keeps vision intact. Most government hospitals are not advanced enough to conduct such surgeries.
Our first priority in ay case is to fundraise for medical procedures. We have tied up with some reputed surgeons all over the country to make sure we can together reach the most reasonable and affective medical solutions in all cases that we are presented with.
When a person is subjected to trauma it is not just understood but vital that he or she receive psychological treatment in order to overcome it. Not only does India not pay any attention to mental health but it is also an aspect that is neglected and made to not exist. In order to lead a dignified and normal life in the future, it is important that survivors of such trauma receive constant specialised counselling. As of now we don’t have such facilities and it is hard to fundraise for mental health as it is yet not recognised as an area of immense need.
In he future we want to try and make mental health a priority as we see first hand its need. Its one thing to make a survivor look presentable, its another thing to make them accept their new standard of acceptable. At the moment we get existing survivors who have come to terms with their situations to counsel recent cases. We found this to work well as only a survivor could ultimately understand another survivor’s pain. We try to also connect the families of survivors with each other in order to have a more constructive exchange of advice. The buddy system also helps aid this aspect of recovery.
If the Indian judicial system can boast about one thing, it’s about being agonisingly slow. Even though survivors are entitled to compensation within the first 15 days of their attack, this is something that most survivors aren’t even aware of. For survivors that are aware of their rights or manage to find social workers that make them aware of this right, the journey Is no less of a headache. There are multiple loopholes that prevent a survivor from all the rights that they deserve. Even though the allotted compensation could prove beneficial for poor families battling large medical bills, this money is never dispersed in time. Even though the government states that medical treatment is free of cost for survivors at government hospital the level of treatment available is nowhere on even the standard level it should be on. At the end of the day the survivors are caught in a vicious cycle that they are left to fend for by themselves. Families loose all their savings paying medical and legal bills to only see no sign of the promised compensation with the added pressure of constantly shuffling between courts and hospitals to ensure their loved ones well being. The justice aspect of it is something that comes years later. Even though most acid attack cases have clear evidence towards the accused and even though multiple fast track courts have been set in place, justice is still a distant dream for victims of such horrific crimes. The justice system in India is slow but for all the wrong reasons. “Justice is not for the poor” is a quote that could sum up the situation with most precision.
We have tied up with the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) to try and provide speedy justice for our survivors but like any other service that isn’t paid for, we are bound to wait our turn. We have cases that have the potential of being made examples of and we are bound by the lack of funds from letting these cases redefine justice. The lack of funds also diminishes our chances of filing PIL’s in court that would ensure a drastic change in existing laws (an issue that we want to tackle and present in court when the time in right). We don’t only wish to change existing laws in the future but to also propose to implement rehabilitation centres for survivors of acid attacks. The government does already supposedly provide compensation but rehabilitation is something they don’t account for as of now. In the future we also wish to conduct consultations on the law to provide for better brain storming to eventually provide for better laws.
Our organisation looks after the well being of existing survivors that actually want to move on with their lives. These women have ambitions and dreams that they are not being able to conquer because even though they think they are worthy, society refuses to give them that chance. Rehabilitation is extremely hard, as India is not yet equipped to deal with the battle of disfigurement. The survivors want to learn skills and then put those skills to use by obtaining employment but society doesn’t let that happen. They question and they taunt, they blame the victim and they stare and in the process they diminish any self-confidence the survivor had gathered being locked up behind closed doors for years to begin with. Social stigma not only ruins the survivors self-confidence but also ensures they don’t earn a dignified living even if they want to. They are looked down upon and are not given the same opportunities as others.
At Make Love Not Scars we not only try to instil skills in our survivors by making them work within the organisation but also try to spread awareness campaigns to try and sensitise the public.
Awareness campaigns– The only way to make the community understand your vision is by showing them, after all a picture is worth a million words. We use various creative mediums to sensitise the public to not only spread awareness but to make people more conscious of their own reactions towards people with disfigurement. To conduct seminars in schools, college and even work places to not only spread awareness of such a crime but also provide first aid knowledge on what to do if one witnesses such a crime.
To attract the youth– Make Love Not Scars started of as a youth driven initiative that captured many young individuals attention. Till date we can say with immense pride that we have a database of volunteers that want to donate their time more than money (Something that is hard to find in todays day and age). With the help of this support we have managed to help raise a conscience in young people that will mould a more compassionate generation in the future. We also give preference to college and school students that wish to explore the field of acid attacked by giving them insides, interviews and photographs to obtain a greater knowledge of chemical burns.
Unconventional reach outs-When we have adequate funding we aim to eradicate social stigma by using unconventional concepts. We want survivors to live dignified living by doing what they love to do best. Some of our survivors want to be dancers and some of them want to be English teachers and we say “WHY NOT?” To redefine the new definition of strength is our mission and our survivors are our motivation. Unlike other organisations, we don’t just aim at conventional forms of rehabilitation; we want to showcase something more extraordinary. The strength of the human spirit that inspires millions is the potential we are working with and we want to use mediums to portray that strength because this is a field with enough healing power to heal even the deepest of wounds. We want to bring about a new era of celebrities. The celebrities being our survivors, being recognised for nothing but their supernatural strength. We want to make this happen by conduction award ceremonies and seminars that highlight these individuals that have overcome so much. Katie Piper is a living example of how one can turn their tragedy into a motivational journey for others. By documenting her life and acid attack she has managed to gain the interest of millions and help them overcome their obstacles. A celebrity in her own right, these are the individuals that deserve to be known for their achievements that entail more than just living through a ‘bad phase’.
As of now we receive all our funding from crowd-funded campaigns online. As we receive no help from the government we have worked excruciatingly hard on our social media presence and that is where we obtain most of our funding from. While crowd funding our logic has never been to obtain large lump sums of money, our campaign are live examples of unity. We have individuals from all walks of life that donate as little as $1 and seeing even that makes us extremely happy. Its not seeing the funds that gives us most happiness, its seeing that we are uniting so many people to come together for a common cause that makes us most happy. Most of our campaigns have multiple funders and even though that has been our goal we find that when the time comes to expand, specific case fundraising will not help us with our long-term mission. We provide maximum transparency to our funders in the form of receipts and online pages where they can track the progress of their funds. This system not only helps us maintain a relationship with our funders but also goes back to our core idea of trying to get people to create a certain relationship with the survivors. When funders pledge funds to a certain campaign the whole point of making them donate case specifically is so that they can keep an eye on the girl they have been funding.
Even after we receive private funding we wish to run case specific campaigns if the need arises as this helps us give the community a chance to contribute to a specific face, a specific life. Even though crowd funding has been extremely kind to us, we find it to be very unreliable. We have a very supportive database of funders but when an emergency case arises it becomes hard for us to collect funds over night as an online campaign does require marketing and time to actually show results. Over the past 11 months we have raised over Rs.1 crore for various survivors in need.
Campaigns with a difference– our campaigns are aided by the creative material that our volunteers help us produce. These creatives come in the form of videos; photographs and writing that help our campaigns gain more attention. Every campaign gives young individuals opportunities to capture hard-hitting subjects.
NOT ONLY FOR MEDICAL– One thing that’s unique about our campaigns is that they don’t just concentrate on medical. We recently raised $50,000 to send a survivor to Parsons New York. We believe in all aspects of rehabilitation and education is an important field in order to achieve our goal. One of our survivors is currently finishing her last year of schooling and another is in her last year of college.
Unlike other organisations– we do not as of now draw salaries from the NGO. All our volunteers work on a strictly volunteering basses with no incentive. The only costs we try to cover are the costs that we sill not recovered from while setting up the organisation. The costs we have still have not recovered from are as follows-
Survivors commute costs– most funders don’t realise that these survivors come from backgrounds where they cant even afford the commute to hospitals. Till date our members have paid for all their commute to hospitals, lawyers visits and food at hospitals for the survivors and their family members.
Website maintenance– the initial cost of setting up our website was obtained through our core members and has still not been recovered. Maintenance requires additional funds, which are regularly provided for by our members.
Medical tests– when we fundraise for a certain survivor this normally doesn’t cover the costs of additional last minute tests, which are crucial in order for a medical procedure to take place. Our members generously help fund these tests in order to ensure smooth sailing as of now. Once we have adequate funding we will be able to cut these last minute costs.
Advertising– In order to spread the word on the cause it is important for us to be able to set up advertising. As of now we have not been able to achieve this.
Legal aide– we do not normally fundraise online for legal costs. Even though our layers work on our cases probono, filing costs, translations costs and other costs are not met because of which cases normally get delayed till we can find private funders.
Plans for the future-
Project sustainable empowerment-We are working on an upcoming campaign that will ensure the complete rehabilitation of 5 survivors over the period of one year. This campaign will be completely crowd funded because sadly that is our only medium of funding. We hope that after the success of this crucial campaign more people will not only realise the potential of survivors but also be willing to privately fund the second round of the programme. (We have attached a short rough brief on the project that we devised for our volunteers). This campaign is the first of its kind and we have been privileged enough to get support from lots of talented people who wish to help aid the campaign in their own ways.
Rehabilitation centre– Pakistan and Dhaka have their own specialised rehabilitation centres for survivors of acid attacks. Even though it is a massive project we have full faith that one day we will be able enough to set up an institution that concentrates on the needs of survivors directly. The centre will provide multiple classes for survivors that wish to learn skills, brail classes for the blind and counselling sessions for all. The centre will enable us to also provide employment for some of the girls as care takers for more recent cases. The centre will also have rooms for survivors that wish to come to the capital from rural areas, at the centre they will be given expert advice and support on the way forward. A centre by the survivors for the survivors.
To setup an acid survivors helpline– the first of its kind, we wish to set up an acid survivors helpline that will be manned by the survivors themselves. They will also be able to obtain employment by working with the helpline.
To fund a professional documentary on the cause– In order to spread the awareness we wish to fund a documentary dedicated to the cause that will be professionally shot over a period of time and will enable the rest of the world to understand the issue.
To change existing laws– W have wanted to contribute to the amendments of laws that concern acid attack for a while now but due to lack of funding have found it hard.
To fund a detailed study on the statistics of acid attacks in India– There are very few studies in the field of acid attacks and whatever research exists proves to be inaccurate. As it does not take into account the unreported cases of acid attacks. By funding a detailed study we can finally determine a more precise statistic, which will be the first of its kind.
To conduct global medical conferences on burns– By gathering surgeons from all the world to come together and share their knowledge on burns not only will we contribute to India’s medical system but we will also be able to discover new technologies to help our survivors.
We do understand that we are a relatively new organisation but this organisation was only put together because of the lack of organisations that work towards this cause. Acid attacks are by far one of the worst forms of violence and the survivors of this crime are not getting even half of the attention that they deserve. Mutilating someone’s face is not just about their appearance, it ruins their self-image, their self-confidence, their place in society and most importantly their lives. We want the opportunity to help these girls stand on their feet again because there is truly no one that deserves it more. Working at the grassroots level, we have seen first hand what a change even the slightest of generosity can bring about. Together we want to redefine a different era of charity that enables every person to participate at every level (including the survivors themselves). We believe that together we have the ability to create not just a sustainable system for the survivors but also a movement that will redefine the concept of giving because we don’t just believe in donating money but time and skills as well.
Their Past Campaigns and Victims who have seen the light at the end of the tunnel-
Our darling Rekha was the face of our first ever campaign. She is currently receiving treatment in Bangalore and is financially supported by us completely. – https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/support-acid-attack-survivor-rekha#home
The super talented Monica Singh has managed to become a role model for many girls in India. Her campaign was picked up by various news channels, which enabled us to reach our campaign goal. Monica is currently studying at Parsons in New York. (Contains short film made by a volunteering multimedia company) – https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/acid-attack-survivor-monica-singh-s-path-to-parsons
Renu underwent an experimental one of its kind surgery that we found after heaps of research. She has been blind for 9 years and now stands a chance of regaining her vision. (Contains a brilliant short film made by one of our volunteers and we couldn’t be prouder!) – https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-bring-back-acid-attack-survivor-renu-s-vision
Reshma is one of our youngest survivors. At only 17 years old she was one of the most effected cases we had witnessed. Reshmas case gained worldwide support when her campaign was mentioned by the Daily Mail Uk. She is currently receiving treatment in Mumbai by one of the of the doctors that works closely with the Ngo.- https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/support-acid-attack-survivor-reshma
Lalita is being treated at the same hospital as Reshma in Mumbai; they have both actually grown to be pretty close. Lalitas case is so special because even though she went through massive trauma you wont see her frown or be weak. The epitome of strength, Lalitas favourite actor is Salman Khan. – https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-acid-attack-survivor-lalita-get-a-new-face
Deepmala’s case is one of the worst cases that we have ever come across. The world seems to agree with us because within the first 4 days of putting up her campaign we had already received all the funds that we needed. Deepmala’s case also gained a lot of media attention which did help the cause- https://milaap.org/campaigns/acidsurvivordeepmala
Anu’s campaign that is still on-going is not doing as well as we had hoped but we have full faith in our followers and are sure that her campaign too will end with a finished goal.- https://milaap.org/campaigns/acid-attack-survivor-anu-mukherjee
Sapna is a 20-year-old survivor who is undergoing surgery, which was facilitated by one of our private funders. She is also attending her last year of school, which was funded by a separate private funder.
Padma is a Jaipur based survivor that is currently finishing her last year of college, which she was made to previously drop out of due to her acid attack. She is now back to college and dreams of being a very successful lady one day (we have no doubt that will happen!)
Archana is a Delhi based survivor that recently got married. Her one wish to get reconstructive surgery on her left eye so she could look even more appealing to her husband (not that she needed it, she truly defines the quote “beauty is only skin deep”). Make love Not Scars privately funded that dream.
Besides the above most of our survivor’s cases are already being fought in court and we are hoping for positive outcomes.
We recently teamed up with advertisings best, Ogilvy and Mather for a viral video campaign called #EndAcidSale. The campaign was extremely well received. For more information on this you could read the article bellow by our online media partners, The Logical Indian. http://thelogicalindian.com/efforts/watch-the-whole-world-is-listening-to-reshma-have-you-heard-her/
We have also been successful in implementing the Supre Court order that states free of cost treatment for acid attack survivors in government and private hospitals. It took a lot of fighting but we now have 6 survivors being treated for free at top private hospitals all over Delhi. http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/family-of-7-attacked-with-acid-denied-treatment-by-hospitals-in-delhi-771249