With the Malayalam film Uyare, story of an acid-attack survivor, eliciting a lot of interest and, Deepika Padukone’s Chhapaak due next year, The Kochi Post reached out to Tania Singh, 26, CEO of the NGO Make Love Not Scars and, co-author of Being Reshma. Tania Singh responds in an email interview:
How did you start your association with Make Love Not Scars?
I had a minor burn accident while pursuing higher studies in Singapore. While recovering from my surgery in Singapore, I started researching on burns in India and discovered the terrible state of medical care available to victims. During one night of such research, I came across a photo of an acid attack survivor and her daughter from Iran (both of whom had been attacked by their own husband/father). The photograph and backstory was haunting and covered by Time Magazine. Back then, I had no idea what an acid attack was nor did I understand how iconic this photograph would one day become. I immediately wrote in to the page that had shared this photograph—a small Facebook page called Make Love Not Scars, which I later found out rehabilitated acid attack survivors in India. This was back in 2014 and I started volunteering for them online.
After graduating from Singapore Management University, I received a job offer from a company called ServisHero in Kuala Lumpur. I was free for a few months prior to moving to Kuala Lumpur and found myself at the Make Love Not Scars rehabilitation centre where I met the founder of the organisation herself—Ria Sharma, a young woman who was my age. Ria and I struck up conversation and became friends within hours. The next day, she offered me a full time role, while I was in India, which I readily accepted. Soon enough, it was time to say goodbye and leave for Kuala Lumpur. I worked in Kuala Lumpur for three months but I found I was restless and unhappy. During a catch-up conversation with my boss, I found myself instinctively saying that I was unhappy and wanted to go quit. He was supportive and told me to follow my heart. Three years later, I am the CEO of the organisation.
How many acid attack cases are reported in India in a year?
In India, around 300 cases are reported every year on official papers—lower than what is reported in the UK. Hence, I believe that our data is not accurate and the real rate is at least 10 times of what we believe it to be.
The rate of crime is not actually a reflection of the crime itself but often a reflection of numerous other factors such as the willingness of the local authorities to note down crimes, the willingness of survivors to report the crimes and more. Many acid attack cases go unreported in cases where the attacker is from the family itself, or where the families of the survivors fear further repercussions from the attackers and when the survivor passes away from injuries before the FIR can be filed.
How successful has the End Acid sale Campaign been? What is the quantum of punishment for acid-attacker if convicted?
The #EndAcidSale campaign was an incredible success and showed us how powerful people can be when they come together for change. Through a series of beauty vlogs, Reshma asked viewers to sign a petition addressed to the government of India, demanding an end to over-the-counter sale of acid. Overnight, we had 2 million views on her videos and over 350,000+ signatures on the petition. As a result, the Supreme Court of India demanded all states to uphold the ban. However, implementation has been a problem which is why acid attacks are still rampant.
The minimum sentence for an acid attack is 10 years.
What made you write the book? And why Reshma?
At a time when conversations surrounding women’s rights is at the forefront of every major dialogue, I thought it was time to have a survivor of a gender-based crime narrate a first-hand account of what it is to actually survive a gender-based crime. At the end of the day, we read tens of stories every day in the papers and on social media about gender-based crimes like rape, dowry-related abuse and acid attacks—and I do not wish there to be a day when we forget the real stories behind these are large numbers. As they say, a single death is a tragedy, and a thousand—a statistic.
I did not wish for acid attack survivors to become just another statistic in the minds of people and hence, I wanted to write a book which highlighted the searing pain and victory of a survivor and put a human face to the problem at hand.
As for why Reshma, She and I wrote this book together—when many survivors are not willing to come out with their stories, Reshma is one of the few who is unafraid and she readily agreed to a memoir. She has inspired many survivors to bear their scars with pride and I hope this book inspires many others to do the same.
Was there any incident that shocked you while researching the book?
Yes. What shocked me was the number of times I heard tales of how women were abused for giving birth to baby girls. Reshma’s sister was abused for giving birth to a baby daughter and I could not comprehend why. I was raised in a loving family where I was led to believe that I could reach great heights. I’ve travelled the world and seen women earning more than men in families—where families are free to choose how men and women function and what roles they decide to take up. I wish I could explain how much more powerful our nation can be when women and men have the same opportunities. It is not that having female babies is a burden naturally—it is a burden because society has set up a system like that. Instead of considering her to be a burden where you have to pay for her wedding—educate your daughters so that they can earn money and pay for their own weddings.
Reshma walked the ramp for New York Fashion Week. How did that happen? And what was the response there?
Reshma was invited to walk the New York Fashion Week for Archana Kochhar and she made global headlines. The response was incredible and highlighted how important it is to show people that beauty does not lie in the eyes of the beholder. All over the world, women are judged on the basis of how they look and this is the primary reason why attackers believe that they are ruining a survivor’s life when they permanently scar a face. However, Reshma proved that her scars are not responsible for how her life pans out—women are so much more than the unexpected beauty standards the world sets on us and it is up to us to change that.
It is time for the fashion industry to be more inclusive and help change such outdated cultural expectations. We would then truly be a more equal world where anyone, including an acid attack survivor, can walk the New York Fashion Week. And it does not make global headlines because it is not the exception.
How has writing this book affected your life and Reshma’s?
It’s affected our lives tremendously and has led to incredible avenues of support. We now believe that awareness is truly the first step to change because only if people understand the extent of the problem can we make a change. People who had never heard about acid attacks are now reaching out to us to help.
How traumatic was it for Reshma to share her story?
Reshma was surprisingly brave throughout and at no point did she break down. However, I sheltered her largely through the process. Her family often stepped in and gave me inputs on her state of mind post the attack. I went through her medical records on my own to understand what surgeries took place and Ria Sharma helped me understand how Reshma overcame her depression. This book is an effort of many people—and we all made the process as easy as we could. Apart from that, Reshma knew how important this journey is, and was extremely brave throughout.