Ria Sharma’s first book Make Love Not Scars voices the brave stories of acid attack survivors. An excerpt from ‘Rehabilitating the Survivors’:

AT SOME POINT ONE IS BOUND TO COME TO A crossroads of sorts. It wasn’t my work that was failing me, it was my inability to rehabilitate the survivors successfully that was demotivating me. Slowly but surely, I could see myself getting extremely disheartened and even though I was trying to keep my faith intact, I could see my mojo slipping away.

Was it fair that the reason for my dogged determination and tenacious struggle be completely undermined because India was, in general, a slow-moving entity? Everything with Make Love Not Scars had moved so fast in its one short year of existence that any period of inactivity spooked me. Every lull felt like I was giving up. It is not like I genuinely wasn’t working, but there were times when there just wasn’t any work. The need still existed, but I was helpless, and there wasn’t much that I could actually do. I wanted to do a lot of things but the slow processes for every little thing was slowing me down and getting me down. In the end I could always do my side of the work but I was so dependent on the authorities to see an outcome. I could file for government compensation and watch as the process took years, I could fight for justice and become an old woman by the time we got our next hearing or I could try and make the best use of my own time and take up the responsibility myself.

Everything with Make Love Not Scars had moved so fast in its one short year of existence that any period of inactivity spooked me. Every lull felt like I was giving up.

After a long week of procrastination and contemplation, I had an epiphany one night: a brand-new goal. I wanted to make these girls independent; I was fed up of them running after all the wrong things like money. It wasn’t their fault though. NGOs in the past have been known to fund survivors although it made the victims dependent on their largesse. Seeking handouts is bad for anyone. It is the wrong outlook to have on life but the survivors, more than anyone, felt entitled to live on charity for the rest of their lives. They didn’t understand one thing though, that this was so not true. It was good if a steady stream of donations kept them afloat for the rest of their lives, but we all knew this wasn’t going to happen. I was finding it hard enough to just raise funds for surgeries and legal aid, let alone to feed and provide for the girls. I had made it crystal clear that this wasn’t my ‘duty’.

NGOs in the past have been known to fund survivors although it made the victims dependent on their largesse. Seeking handouts is bad for anyone.

So I began to ponder, how could I:

  1. Change the mindsets of the girls to make them want to be independent?
  2. Provide for this independence to actually make it a reality?

It wasn’t that no one wanted to work; I had girls who actually wanted to be self-sufficient. The ones that did want to be independent had two issues: the illiterate had to be educated or equipped with a skill that enabled them to be employed and earn a dignified living. The ones that were employable required me to eradicate the social stigma that prevented employers from hiring them. Both tasks in themselves, I realised, that we had ample issues with. I needed a sure-shot, kill-two-birds-with-one stone kind of solution, and the obstacles in my way seemed never-ending. Let’s say I managed to eliminate the two problems described above, then the next stage would be even more challenging. How do I cater to the variety of disabilities that afflicted my victims?

The illiterate had to be educated or equipped with a skill that enabled them to be employed and earn a dignified living. The ones that were employable required me to eradicate the social stigma that prevented employers from hiring them.

I possibly couldn’t provide for a generalised employment scheme, as each survivor possessed a different handicap. Most NGOs have to contend with one disability per NGO whereas I was a multi-specialty NGO because not only did I have to deal with disfigurement, but a whole array of disadvantages, all of them inflicted in the cruellest way, and none of them congenital. Visual, auditory, speech-impaired, illiteracy, loss of fingers, and that list went on. It was impossible for me to contact a different NGO to help with a different disability and I came to the conclusion that I had to take on all these disabilities and just get over the fact that I thought I couldn’t do something about it. I was livid with myself but knew that I was going to hate myself if I didn’t do something, anything. The feeling of inadequacy wasn’t going to leave me anytime soon so I decided to start working on it before it ate me alive.

Excerpted with permission from Make Love Not Scars by Ria Sharma, Westland Books.

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