How To Help Acid Attack Victims Around The Globe

by Claire Elizabeth Felter

Acid throwing, also known as an acid attack or vitriol attack, is defined as a form of assault where a person throws a chemical or corrosive substance onto the body of another. The attacker's intent is almost always to disfigure, torture, or kill the victim. Though survivors of acid violence are often stigmatized by their own communities, there are small beacons of hope in the organizations that concentrate on helping acid attack victims heal and spreading awareness. One of these groups is Make Love Not Scars, a small NGO supporting acid attack survivors in India.

“The reason I started working with acid attacks was because it was really the worst thing, in my eyes, that you could do to someone,” Ria Sharma, founder of Make Love Not Scars, tells Bustle in an interview. “Each of the survivors has at least a minimum of 5 to 7 years of recovery, and even after they recover, it’s just about trying to get as close to normal as possible.”

The number of victims who must face this unceasing recovery process is overwhelmingly young women. According to 2013 data by Acid Survivors Trust International, a UK-based charity working to end acid violence, there are about 1,500 acid attacks reported around the globe each year; the organization estimates that 1,000 of those incidents take place in India alone. Sharma believes the number to be significantly higher, since many victims choose not to report incidents out of fear of social stigma. Organizations like Make Love Not Scars and ASTI set out with the goal of bringing that number down to zero, and there are a few ways any person can join in the mission to help victims of acid attacks around the globe.

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Make Love Not Scars is less than a year old, but has already provided legal aid to a number of victims as well as funding for reconstructive surgeries. While attacks are prevalent in several regions around the globe — from southeast Asia, to the Middle East, to sub-Saharan Africa —Sharma started her organization to help survivors specifically in India after filming a documentary about acid attack victims in her home country.

ASTI works on a larger scale: it has partner organizations in India, as well as ones in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, Nepal, and Uganda.

Both organizations provide opportunities for monetary assistance through individual donations or fundraising. Make Love Not Scars recently took on a fundraising campaign to pay for construction of a rehabilitation center that would not only provide educational workshops and trainings, but also targets survivors' particular needs through counseling sessions or braille classes for blind victims.

"A lot of these girls have problems in being reintroduced back into society," says Sharma. "It if works out, we could potentially have a really good model in place for other states to implement."

ASTI encourages helpers to take part in fundraising challenge events to raise money for survivors. You can sign up for a trek through the Himalayas or fundraise for a cycling trip that takes you from Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City to Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple. The organization also supports original ideas. ASTI will help manage an event of your own design, like screening a film or putting together a concert in your community.

According to Sharma, helping acid attack victims comes in more forms than one. A better understanding of prevention methods could significantly reduce physical damage for victims.

Medical experts say getting water onto the affected area within the first three seconds of an attack can minimize scarring. And though three seconds may sound like an unreasonable goal — our brains would take several seconds simply to react to a chemical burn — the faster water gets on the burn, the better.

“It’s phenomenal what water can actually do,” says Sharma. “So I think it’s really important for people to actually know that.”

For those who haven't been able to avoid the heavy scarring that comes with acid throwing, compassion and acceptance can go a long way, too. Sharma says all of the victims she’s worked with want to do something or be someone, but, at least in India, they feel they can’t because society is holding them back. If the stigma of an unconventional-looking face or skin was minimized, Sharma believes more opportunities would arise for survivors.

"I think these girls would definitely stand a chance then," Sharma says.

Receiving stares from others is an added stress when a survivor already must confront the trauma of looking at herself and finding a stranger.

“A lot of [them] suffer from identity crisis right after the attacks," Sharma says. "So when they do finally see themselves and they look in the mirror, they're just like 'we can't recognize ourselves.'"

The isolation a survivor faces is often based in a community's lack of knowledge about her circumstances, such as an incorrect assumption that a girl did something to deserve an attack. The different opportunities available, then, for helping girls and ending acid attacks comes down to knowledge. And there are so many ways to do this other than taking on a bike ride across a country or donating your savings account's balance. It could be signing MLNS's petition to end the sale of open acid and sharing it on social media, or telling a friend that some survivors go through three or four dozen surgeries before saying no to any more out of sheer exhaustion.

Spreading awareness could also stem from learning why acid attacks happen in the first place. According to Sharma, attacks are more prevalent on the Indian subcontinent because the traditionally male-dominated culture is facing change and development.

"When women try to progress or have ... mind[s] of their own, at least in India, they're kind of attacked," Sharma says.

The ease with which a person can purchase acid at a market across a number of countries helps perpetuate its use as a form of violence. That's why organizations like MLNS don't limit their efforts to only helping those who have experienced acid violence. MLNS's social media campaign, #EndAcidSale, aims to end the open sale of acid entirely through a petition that will go to India's Supreme Court. Because as much as acid victims seek acceptance from neighbors or even family members, they seek a society where others won't ever have to.