"When I was 21 I realized that I wanted to devote my life to the welfare of acid attack survivors. I was pursuing my third and final year of fashion design at Leeds College Of Art. It was my interest in photography that led me to shoot a documentary on acid attack survivors in India. It was while shooting this documentary titled “Make Love Not Scars” that I found myself in a government hospital's burns unit. Seeing their burnt and mangled bodies and the poor medical facilities that they had to rely on led me to abandon my documentary project and turn it into an organization instead. I realized I wanted to work for them. The ward was devoid of love, plagued by misery and the lack of hygiene. I wanted to bring a positive change to the situation, and also raise awareness about it.
It has been a truly challenging journey and I have had to overcome some really tough situations. I once dealt with a case, that I had poured my heart and soul into, unfortunately she succumbed to her injuries. The helplessness I felt while signing her death certificate while her father silently wept by my side, is a feeling I will never forget. My career path has not been a smooth one. I have had to deal with with stressful, traumatic and often mentally strenuous situations. There have been times when I have been so shaken up that I feared I would pass out. But I kept telling myself that I didn’t posses the right to be this weak when the girl on the operating table was being so strong. My journey alongside these women has definitely made me stronger.
When I feel like things are getting hard and I cannot carry on, I give myself the same pep talk I give my survivors and then I tell myself to sleep on it. I let myself know that there’s always a way out. And it’s a choice I have made not because I have to but because I genuinely want to. During times of turmoil it’s easy to lose sight of why you started and get caught up in the negativity. But, honestly my survivors are the only motivation I need, if they can live through what has happened to them, then so can I .
There was a time when I would let the comments that people left on my posts affect me. The fact the they belittled the victories that I thought were significant was truly hurtful. But I think there comes a point in your life when you realize that you don’t do what you do to please the haters, you do it to save somebody’s life or make it better. When I finally realized that I had absolutely nothing to prove, my life become a lot easier. Also the support of my family and friends has kept me going through the most difficult of times.
I think speaking up is important. If you are happy with your body type, say it and don’t change just because you don’t fit other people’s definition of ‘perfect’. Your body is yours, own it. And don’t let people force you into anything. Because there is great beauty in being able to embrace who you are and what you look like. I find it extremely empowering when women recognize and declare that they are the only ones allowed to criticize their own bodies. My work requires me to be absolutely fit. Fitness to me doesn’t just mean physical fitness. In order to do what I do I need to be mentally fit. If I am not able to prioritize my feelings and emotions then I cannot help anyone. People rely on my mental fitness to pick them up when they are at their lowest.
A woman’s place in society is judged on her appearance and a man’s place is based on how much he can earn. I think we are in the middle of a revolution where we are trying to prove that we are more than what we look like... I do believe women are changing things up. We are making a noise and it is not going unnoticed.
My advice to young women is to be true to yourself. Be who you want to be, do what you want to do and do not let devastating situations define who you are, instead respect your journey and let that inspire you."
Ria Sharma is the founder of ‘Make Love Not Scars’ - an NGO dedicated to helping the survivors of acid attacks.
* In association with Puma.