BREAKING BARRIERS DESPITE UNIMAGINABLE CHALLENGES: NON-PROFIT CEO CELEBRATES THE PROGRESS OF ACID ATTACK RECOVERY EFFORTS
Following the launch of the annual HerStory Award, by the Women’s Federation for World Peace USA, which honors the strength and achievements of women who have prevailed over the battles they faced and maintain a positive outlook despite many obstacles and hardships in their lives, we are now pleased to announce the launch of the HerStory column with this newsletter. We will highlight extraordinary women from around the world to inspire our readers with examples of leadership, courage, and determination!
For our first HerStory column, enjoy this highlight of the work of the non-profit, Make Love Not Scars, based in Delhi, India, that works toward rehabilitating acid attack survivors in India, 80% of which are women. Written by Tania Singh, C.E.O of the organization, this inspiring article shows how the acid attack survivors that they help rehabilitate have been able to break barriers despite facing unimaginable challenges. Most importantly, Ms. Singh states that the team of young women at Make Love Not Scars and the survivors that they work with are always lifting each other up, and that, according to her is the ultimate key to success!
Despite working towards a business degree in Singapore from Singapore Management University, my life had come to a standstill. After surviving a horrific fire accident, I was now at a crossroads. I had received world-class medical care and my scars had healed, yet many women in my home country continued to struggle in ways I could never comprehend. I had almost died at twenty-three, and this was my second chance at the life I had always wanted, yet never had the emotional courage to face.
I had two options and despite what I was told would be the right thing to do, I did the least recommended. I left Singapore after finishing my degree in order to return home to the world’s rape capital, New Delhi, India, and joined my now best friend and the founder of Make Love Not Scars, Ria Sharma, in her journey towards ending acid attacks. As the C.E.O of an organization that works towards rehabilitating acid attack survivors throughout India, I am constantly reminded of the fact that while the world is gravitating towards the future, many women are fading away into the distant past like forgotten, fleeting ships.
The world has a long way to go before we can completely end female infanticide, sexual assault, workplace harassment, unfair wages, and more. However, in India, progress is further inhibited because a woman is still viewed as an object of honour for her family, and it is a struggle to change this historic perception. A love marriage with a man not suggested by a woman’s parents can have her killed, whereas jealousy by a scorned lover can have her attacked with acid. In India, 80% of acid attacks are against women, and 90% of those victims are aged between 16-40, attached by scorned lovers, husbands, in-laws, fathers, brothers, and uncles. Most of the survivors that Make Love Not Scars has rehabilitated have been attacked by the men in their own families for various reasons, including: daring to earn their own livelihoods, being unable to give birth to sons, and for apparently dishonouring their family members in ways we could never comprehend.
In this patriarchal society, we’ve come across cases where women continue to live with their attackers because of social stigma, fear, and the lack of help available in escaping abusive homes. Oftentimes in small towns and villages, local authorities refuse to register the crime in order to maintain a low crime ratio which, in turn, benefits the current ruling political parties. Imagine the trauma of being attacked by someone in one’s own household, and then having no choice but to stay with them!
If there is one thing that my three years of working with Make Love Not Scars has taught me, it is that while women are the most victimised in India, they are also the fiercest warriors I have ever met. As unexpected as it would seem, hope is most capable of enabling change in the most desperate situations. Now, more than ever before, women are standing up for each other. Around the world, men are lending their voices to supporting women with the #HeForShe campaign, while people are shunning victim blaming through the #MeToo campaign. In our own small manner, Make Love Not Scars is fighting for women’s right through the #EndAcidSale campaign.
Acid attack survivors face unimaginable challenges. They are scarred for life, some lose their eyesight and hearing, the pain lasts for years, and many have a limited range of motion in the affected areas. Acid burns through metal. The effect of the corrosive substance on skin in unimaginable. However, in November 2014, Make Love Not Scars decided to run a campaign that will demand that the government end the over-the-counter sale of acid in India. In a nation where policies take years of discussion before change is manifested, how would we ever manage such a mammoth task?
Our brave survivors with broken souls and bloodied bandages stepped up and supported us when we felt lost. They knew we could do it before knew it. A seventeen year old survivor called Reshma Qureshi decided to become the face of our #EndAcidSale campaign. Despite being in a deep depression where she spoke to no one, she rose like a phoenix from the ashes.
Together, Ria and Reshma launched the End Acid Sale campaign. Through a series of beauty tutorials called Beauty Tips By Reshma that included a call to action demanding why in India makeup was harder to find than acid, Reshma demanded that our nation sign a petition to end to over-the-counter sale of acid. The petition was addressed to the Prime Minister of India. Overnight, we had 2 million views and over 350,000 signatures. Make Love Not Scars went viral. By 2015, the supreme court of India ordered all states to enforce the ban.
In 2015, our survivors inspired us to start the world’s first rehabilitation center for acid attack survivors. Under Ria’s guidance, we secured funding and started a one-of-a-kind rehabilitation center. The center is run by survivors for survivors. Survivors cook for each other, help each other after surgeries, talk each other out of depression, and, the best part, they do so as a part of a well-paid job. On weekends, we host English, computer, and yoga classes. Global entrepreneurs visit our center to teach skills and recruit for freelance jobs. The survivors are living lives they never imagined before. In 2016, Reshma was the first acid attack survivor to walk the New York Fashion Week. In 2017, Reshma and I landed a book deal to publish her memoir with Pan Macmillan in India and the United Kingdom. For a seventeen year old who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, she’s now taken the world by storm.
Last year, our survivor Mamta shot a Buzzfeed video with India’s leading comedian, Tanmay Bhatt. Despite the fact that her husband attacked her with acid and kidnapped her son, she is continuing to make her voice heard in hopes to reunite with her son one day. One survivor Soni, from Uttar Pradesh, was attacked by her in-laws. She now works at the rehabilitation center and is set to go for surgery to Beverly Hills. Up until she was attacked, she had never left her village, and today, she is crossing continents.
Our survivors and team are breaking barriers every single day. Our founder, Ria Sharma, was the first Indian to win the United Nations Global Goals Awards by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This year, she made it to Forbes 30 under 30 at the age of 25. Our organization was the first non-profit to win the CNBC-TV18's India Business Leader Award last year. Our organization was then run completely by women, all under the age of 25.
Many people ask us what is the key to our success. Many wonder how we manage to do what we do at our age and the answer is simple: we lift each other up. Mistakes are made and forgiven, if the heart is at the right place. We have seen survivors find jobs for each other, help each other, and advise each other in ways many privileged people don’t. We’re woven together like delicate wool, where together, we’re beautiful, and if one unravels, the whole piece falls apart. Many people ask us how they can change the world and I have just one response: stop competing with each other and lift each other up. As women, we must first learn to stand up for each other before we ask the same from the rest of the world.
The views represented in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of WFWP USA.