Ria Sharma studied BA (Hons) Fashion at Leeds Arts University and graduated in 2014.
Ria grew up in New Delhi and moved to the UK to study fashion in 2011. As a part of her final year project at Leeds Arts University Ria became interested in the survivors of acid attacks and founded Make Love Not Scars, an organisation aiming to identify and support the rehabilitation of acid attack survivors. In March 2017 Ria was awarded the India Today Woman of the Year Award for Public Service as well as the GoalGlobal Young Leadership Award in September 2017.
Image: Ria Sharma wins British Council International Alumni Award, March 2016
Ria and her team have supported the survivors of acid attacks by funding treatments and providing legal support to secure compensation. They have also funded the education of multiple survivors, even helping one individual to pursue their passion by sending them to study design in New York.
Alongside rehabilitation, Ria aims to get justice for the women she supports. Through its work, Make Love Not Scars has created legal benchmarks for cases relating to acid attacks, which is helping other survivors attempting to seek justice.
Ria was awarded the British Council International Alumni Award for Social Impact by the Lord Mayor Of London and Baroness Valerie Amos at the British Council, Delhi in March 2016 and the KaramVeer Chakra and Global Fellowship on the 23rd of March 2015.
Image: Ria during an interview with Discovery in February 2016.
We caught up with Ria to find out more about her experiences as an international student and how her studies at the University led her from fashion to setting up an NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation).
Can you tell us how the idea for Make Love Not Scars developed?
I came in contact with acid attack survivors when I was looking for inspiration for my final major project. I was interested in relating woman’s empowerment with fashion and I decided to spend my last semester back home to work with these brave women. My initial idea was to shoot a documentary on the survivors of acid attacks, however during this time, just out of good will, I started a campaign to raise funds for one survivor I met in India. When that generated funds and helped her, I started receiving calls from other survivors asking me for help. I no longer wanted to just make a documentary; for my final major project I submitted an organisation!
What was it that made you choose to study in the UK and at Leeds Arts University?
I studied at an international school in India which made it easier for me to apply abroad for further education. I was always creatively inclined and I always dreamt of being a fashion buyer or a stylist, the good Universitys at home that did have my course were not as open minded as I’d hoped so I looked to the UK. The tutors taking my interview at Leeds Arts University were extremely warm and friendly and paid very close attention to what I was saying. I loved the fact that the tutors actually wanted to identify what pathway I was fit for and took an interest in my work, the minute I walked into Leeds I was drawn to it. I could just see myself there. The warmth of the University combined with Leeds itself made it a perfect fit for me.
As an international student, how did you find the experience of studying at Leeds?
It was hard settling in at first but once you have a good set of friends everything falls into place. I was home sick pretty often but the course was brilliant and I knew I had to stay. Being from India, I thought I had seen all the culture this world had to offer, but Leeds really did open my eyes to a broader and more diverse world. The people I met inspired me to channel my own individuality and the facilities that the University offered were unbeatable. I could use any resource in any studio and that really did broaden a lot of horizons for me; just to have the choice of working with any medium, and learning any skill you wished, was something that I really enjoyed about the University. I was fortunate enough to have the kind of freedom which I probably wouldn’t have got at any other University.
Can you give us an insight into a typical working week?
I try to get out and do some fieldwork at least 3 times a week. This involves spending time with survivors and checking up on their condition. I am often the only direct link a survivor has to doctors, lawyers, an education and employment. Since Make Love Not Scars works on full rehabilitation, I often find myself following up on the survivor’s legal cases, setting up surgeries and scouting for reliable hospitals where the particular survivor might be based. Most campaigns generate funds only through social media so I devote several hours a day to this. Social media is also where I try to spread the awareness on the issue of acid attacks.
Do you have any advice for students who might want to set up their own organisation after graduating?
When I first started a lot of people told me that my idea wasn’t going to work and that’s something that can be really discouraging, the trick is to keep going. Have faith in what you’re doing; be prepared to be knocked down a few times. It takes a while to see results in any field so believe in your vision and hold onto it.
Finally, can you tell us more about your plans for the future?
I aim to expand Make Love Not Scars and spread awareness of this issue that does not get the attention it deserves. It is shocking that gender based violence still persists. I would like the organisation to be self-sustainable and able to provide employment for survivors. The idea is to create an organisation for the survivors, run by the survivors. The vision is to unite people from all walks of life and bring them together for one common cause.
Recently Make Love Not Scars supported model, campaigner and acid attack survivor Reshma Qureshi to walk the runway at New York Fashion Week. You can read more here: