The Atrocity of Acid Attacks


Of all the gender-based violence directed at women, one of the most horrific is acid attacks. Men, who have been jilted, have had their advances spurned, or are involved in a dispute, will permanently mutilate unsuspecting women by throwing sulfuric, hydrochloric or nitric acid on their faces or genitals causing excruciating pain and sometimes blinding, causing loss of hearing or killing their victims (BBC, 1999). Acid attacks are most common in Bangladesh and have in recent years multiplied in frequency. Selling for about 60 cents a bottle, acid has become an increasingly common weapon used against women in what appears to have become a socially acceptable way to get even (Shil, 1999). While the first documented acid violence case occurred in 1967 (bicn, 1999), the recent trend of acid throwing at women began in 1992 in Bangladesh, an impoverished nation heavily sustained by international funding (Schmetze, 1999). The Dhaka office of UNICEF reported that there were 200 cases of acid attacks in 1999, but they realize that many cases go unreported and that the actual count is much higher (BBC, 1999). The acid that is used is sold openly at hardware stores and literally melts away skin and muscle - often down to the bone (Chung, 1999).

The wave of acid-throwing coincided with a new trend by women in Bangladesh to assert their rights. Many women have been provided with loans to launch small businesses and have gained financial power and increased social standings in their communities (Feminist News, 1998). With this financial assistance came economic independence and a chance to reject marriage proposals in a society where women were traditionally passed from father to husband as serfs. Officials believe that the increase in attacks is due to a male backlash against women who are becoming increasingly confident and independent (Schmetzer, 1999).

About The Victims

Bangladesh newspapers reported in 1998 that in a nine month period, ten girls under ten years of age were attacked, 79 women between 11-20 were attacked, and 20 victims were between 20-30 years old. Often other members of the family are also harmed when they are in the vicinity of the acid attack (WIN News, 1999).

Acid victims are viewed as pariahs; usually they are even blamed for causing the attack (Chung, 1999). Defense lawyers invariably portray the victims of acid attacks as flirts who drive the assailants to an extreme form of revenge. But as U.M. Habibunnesa Habiba of Naripokkho, a women's rights organization, points out: "These crimes can never be spontaneous acts of passion because the offender has to arrange for the acid and to carry it in a safe container." She says the attacks are a favored means of retaliation because they can totally break a woman's spirit. "The idea is to damage the face or the vagina, because that will hurt a woman - and her honor - most," she says (Hossain, 1999).

Most survivors experience a dramatic change in lifestyle and face social isolation that is damaging to self-esteem and economic position. An unmarried woman attacked with acid will likely never marry (bicn, 1999). "The trauma stems from excruciating pain and unbearable shock compounded by social rejection even by their own families", states Mir Mohammad Iman Hossain, director of Monowara Hospital (Shil, 1999). Dhaka Medical College has seen the average number of victims increase from two to three per week, with many rural attacks going unreported. Chemical burns horribly disfigure victims and most women in Bangladesh cannot obtain any reconstructive surgery (Feminist News, 1998).

The Survivors

Masammat Monira, married at the age of 10, was attacked in 1998 by her husband who was angry over the amount of dowry paid by her family. She was one of the victims who was offered help by Spanish surgeons offering free reconstruction. She had surgery to reconstruct her eyelids, neck, nose, lips and an ear, and was hardly recognizable to her own father after treatment (BBC, 1999).

Bina, at 17, was an accomplished sprinter and had hoped to compete in the Olympics someday. One night, a local thug broke into her house and poured acid on her face. Bina was taken to the hospital and her uncle had to sell everything he owned to pay for her medicine, bandages and blood. She was severely scarred and had a badly damaged left eye. Bina was one of the first acid victims to take off her veil. Most victims are too ashamed to show their faces and hide behind closed doors and curtained windows (Chung, 1999).

Ambia Khatum, a 30-year-old widow, was sleeping with her two sons, ages 4 and 6, when an elderly man whose marriage proposal she had spurned broke in and splashed acid on the faces of Ambia and her boys. Ambia is now blind and her boys are scarred for life. "I'm better off dead. What use am I now to anyone?", said Ambia. "If I testify against this man, his family may kill me or kill my children. But I will testify. He must be punished." (Schmetzer, 1999).

Thirteen-year-old Sonia and her two younger brothers were watching television at home when a 21 year old male emptied a bottle of acid on them to punish her for complaining to her parents about his excessive attentions. Sonia lost her sight (Hossain, 1999).

Sufia was 20 and had just been accepted at college, a major achievement for a girl living in a poor Bangladesh village. Sufia and her sister Helen were sleeping in the same bed when a man her sister had turned down for marriage broke in and threw the acid meant for Helen onto Sufia's face. Sufia's great ambition was to be an agronomist. "Now she'll probably end up as a beggar", whispered Dr. Samata Lal Sen, a plastic surgeon in Bangladesh (Schmetzer, 1999).

Eighteen-year-old Josna Begun's husband doused her with acid in a dispute over her dowry. She 'appears as a living mummy, with a face almost fossilized by scars'. She and other victims will not recover their former appearance in part because they were so malnourished they did not have reserves of skin to spare (WIN News, 1999).

Assistance Efforts

The Acid Survivors' Foundation - ASF, was established in May, 1999 to coordinate ongoing assistance in the treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration of acid attack victims into society (bicn, 1999). The ASF was founded by retired British historian John Morrison after he saw a British television documentary on the subject of acid attacks (WIN News, 1999).

Free treatment has been offered by Spanish surgeons in conjunction with ASF, and The Society for Humanitarian Aid and Relief Efforts - SHARE (BBC, 1999). SHARE also is seeking more sponsors willing to help finance their efforts in the surgeries and post-operative rehabilitation of acid survivors (SHARE, 1999).

Dr. Sen, one of only eight plastic surgeons in Bangladesh (a country of 127 million people), sees the need for more facilities: "We cannot send all the girls to Spain, America, Australia or Italy. We must do the treatment here in Bangladesh. And we have got the skill. If we get the facilities, we will be able to do this surgery here" (Chung, 1999).

A team of Italian plastic surgeons from the Italian branch of INTERPLASTIC, a worldwide group of Good Samaritans went to Dhaka in 1998 for two weeks with all their equipment and worked on some of Dr. Sen's patients (Schmetzer, 1999).

The women's right organization in Bangladesh, Naripakkho, understands that the physical wounds can be treated but the emotional scars will remain with the victims for their entire lives. Nasrin Hoque of Naripakkho says: "No one can give back the girls their lost beauty, but we can at least give them a face back and tell them they are not neglected" (BBC, 1999).

The Dhaka-based Bangladesh National Women's Lawyers' Association provides legal aid to the victims of acid attacks (Hossain, 1999).

Medical Care

The hospital burn unit at Dhaka Medical College only has eight beds for female patients, not nearly enough for the acid attack victims. There is no modern equipment; all patients are bathed in the same bathtub; their dressings are often changed by the maids who clean the floor. Doctors can do only the most basic reconstructive surgery with a one-hour operation costing several hundred dollars in a country where the average income is $25 a month. Most acid attack victims need several surgeries with each lasting four to five hours (Chung, 1999).

Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest countries and it lacks specialist burn units. Even if there were more, the cost of treatment would be beyond the reach of most victims. "Bangladesh has only four to five hospitals handling burn patients," said one doctor at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, "at this hospital even seriously burnt patients have to wait for years to get admission and treatment" (Shil, 1999).

Reasons for Acid Attacks

Through their attacks men seem to be saying, "If I can't have her, no one will." By throwing acid men not only destroy women's faces, but also their chances for ever getting married (Chung, 1999).

"The offenders throw acid to destroy the bodies of women and shatter their dreams for not allowing the criminals to abuse them physically, or for the women's inability to bring handsome dowries from their parents," states lawyer and activist, Sigma Huda (Shil, 1999).

Often, the perpetrators are spurned suitors who feel that, if they cannot have the woman they desire, they must mangle her so badly that she has no other takers. "This is a relatively new form of violence that is spreading fast," says Salma Ali, a human-rights lawyer with the Association of Women Lawyers. "These men are driven by revenge, but it almost seems as if throwing acid has become a fun thing for them," (Hossain, 1999).

In a very gruesome and unthinkable case a 12-year old girl was mutilated with acid over a land deal. "The acid throwers figured the medical costs of caring for the girl would eliminate the rival family as competitors for the purchase of a piece of land," says ASF's John Morrison. Both lawyers and doctors agree the acid-throwing fad is a tragic byproduct of a gender revolution (Schmetzer, 1999).

The Attackers and the Laws

The men who throw acid on women are rarely convicted and often try to bribe police. The Acid Survivors' Foundation estimates that only one in ten attackers ever go to trial (Chung, 1999).

Bangladeshi law gives judges the right to impose sentences from eight years to life imprisonment for acid throwers, although only one man has been sentenced to life. The police know who the attackers are but often won't arrest them and if a case did go to court it could take years for a conviction. "Many cases are pending but there are few convictions. Usually the police try to convince or intimidate the woman to withdraw her case," said Salma Ali, who heads the lawyers' group (Schmetzer, 1999).

Even a doctor's oath to respect human life has its limits, as displayed by the statement of an irate doctor who has seen more pain than he cared to: "If we really want to stop the acid throwers, the law must impose exemplary punishment. The men who do this should be hung in a public square, and I personally would like to throw some acid in their faces so they'll know what it feels like" (Schmetzer, 1999).

Legislation in the form of the Women and Child Repression Control Act of 1995, which set the death penalty as the maximum penalty for acid attackers, seems to have had little effect. (By 1999) only ten men have been caught and jailed (Shil,1999).

Even those convictions languish in higher appeals courts while the guilty men are out on bail, sometimes harassing the victim's family to drop the charges. "I am fed up," complains Habiba of Naripokkho. "They keep making new laws, but wherever we go, we just see violence and more violence against women" (Hossain, 1999).

Works Cited


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