Acid Attacks on Women and How You Can Help
Acid attacks have appeared across the world in relatively recent times as modern technology makes large quantities of concentrated acids cheap and readily available. Acid attacks, or "acid throwing", has been declared a gender-specific crime, as at least 80% of the victims are women.
An acid attack is when a person throws or douses another person with a strong acid with the intention of maiming, humiliating, and even killing that person. The acid used is often nitric or sulfuric acid. It is usually thrown at the victim's face, and so the damage is most often on the face, neck, and hands (as the victims tries to protect herself). However acid burn victims may have damage anywhere on their body depending on how they were attacked.
Although acid attacks have been reported in many countries around the world, they are most common in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. Attacks there are usually among the poorer and under-educated populations, where women are already treated as second-class citizens and do not have the means to protect themselves from their abusive, patriarchal societies. Many attacks go unreported, and many that are reported never make it to the courts for justice.
The most common reasons behind these attacks are relationship and sexual issues. It is often a retaliation or revenge for a man feeling rebuffed, or a family fearing "dishonor". Women have been burned for refusing a man's sexual advances, refusing a marriage proposal, being unable to fulfill dowry demands, leaving or complaining about domestic abuse, looking at men on the street, not covering their hair or face, or simply because they weren't wanted by their husband anymore.
Since the majority of these attacks happen in poorer and sometimes rural communities, medical attention is not often available or given to the victims. This may be because medical attention is not immediately available (the nearest center might be in another town), seen as too expensive, or not properly understood. Being burned by concentrated acid is unimaginably painful and traumatizing. The acid can quickly eat away skin tissue, fat, and even dissolve cartilage and bone if not thoroughly washed off or neutralized with a basic substance like baking soda. It is reported that many victims admit that they did not know that immediately washing the burns with water would have lessoned the damage.
Some women are killed by these attacks, but most survive. The life of a survivor, however, is difficult and humiliating, as the disfigured women are usually socially shunned, isolated, or abandoned. Many women are blinded in one or both eyes, their noses and lips have melted away, making eating and speaking difficult, and often scar tissue tightens and pulls at their faces, necks, and hands, limiting their mobility. Immediate medical attention is crucial to limiting the damage, but most victims require several more surgeries and procedures to combat tightening scar tissue and disfigurements. Not many women can afford this without the help of free clinics and visiting surgeons from other (richer) countries. The emotional scarring can be just as debilitating as the physical scarring.
Countries where Acid Attacks have been reported
Oscar-Winning "Saving Face" Documentary
In 2012 the documentary "Saving Face" won an Academy Award while bringing the issue of acid attacks on women to a wider audience.
The short film primarily follows two women in Pakistan who were attacked with acid, and Dr. Mohammed Ali Jawad, a Pakistani plastic surgeon in London who was inspired to make regular visits to his home country in order to offer free reconstructive surgeries to victims of acid attack.
In the film audiences also see the Pakistan parliament pass legislation criminalizing acid throwing with steep fines (1 million rupees, or approx. US$18,000) and a 14-year to life sentence in prison.
One woman in the film, Zakia, was attacked by her husband when she filed for divorce after years of physical abuse. She lost an eye and part of her nostril, and scar tissue pulled at her mouth making it difficult for her to speak and eat. Her husband was arrested and awaiting trial for much of the film. Dr. Jawad loosened the scar tissue, releasing and realigning her mouth, and built an external prosthetic that filled in and recreated her missing eyebrow, eye, cheekbone, and part of her nose. Her case became the first one tried under the new law, and her husband received a double-life sentence for his crime. With her prosthetic she became confident enough to go outside without covering her face.
The other woman followed in the film, Rukhsana, does not have such a happy ending. She was attacked with acid and set on fire with gasoline by her husband, sister-in-law, and mother-in-law. No one was arrested or tried for this crime. Although this woman left her husband after the attack, she was forced to move back in when her daughter became ill and she could not afford to care for her. During the film this woman still lives with the very people who attacked her, and is kept isolated from her daughter. Her surgeries are delayed when it is discovered she is pregnant. Her future is still uncertain and bleak at the end of the film.
The makers of this film are now extending their mission through Project SAAVE (Stand Against Acid Violence), to use the film to increase awareness of acid violence against women, build a burn center in Lahore, Pakistan, and create opportunities for individuals around the world to help burn victims.
Trailer for "Saving Face" Documentary
Acid Attacks are Primarily Crimes Against Women, their Rights, and their Equality
Although men and children have been known to be victims of acid attack, the vast majority of victims are women. Furthermore, the majority of the motives behind these attacks are gender and sexual-based. There are still societies and cultures which do not value women as human beings, but rather sexual objects that can be used, bartered, and tossed aside according to men's fancies. Many women in the world still have little say and even less power to direct their lives as they wish.
Shockingly, men are not the only perpetrators of acid crimes against women. Other women are sometimes involved in these attacks as well; usually an in-law backing up the disgruntled husband, or even a mother protecting the "family honor". This indicates even further how much more patriarchal interests are valued over a woman's life, that even other women are primarily concerned with a man's reputation.
If the perpetrators are confronted about the incident, they usually lie, either about the incident itself of why the woman deserved it. In the Saving Face documentary, Rukhsana's husband claims that she is crazy and caught fire on a lamp during a fit. In other cases men simply make up lies that the woman had an affair and thus deserved it, or that she is in some way "dishonorable" as a woman.
The reason that even reported cases don't often make it to the courts is because police in these societies are reluctant to get involved in what is seen as a "family matter". Police also accept bribes to forget about the incidences or throw out the case. This clearly maintains the notion that such behavior is acceptable within family dramas and that men can get away with abusing women.
These attitudes reflect the fact that acid attacks are not just another type of random violence--like shootings or beatings, which might happen to anyone for any reason--but directly related to women's rights and status, a symptom of large numbers of people who view women as nothing more than troublesome objects and possessions.
This crime can only be prevented by changing the mindset of the people who commit these acts and those who allow such acts to go unpunished. The hard work must be done within those countries that see these events regularly, but international support and aid can keep their fight going by funding their efforts and funding clinics to properly treat the victims.
Katie Piper in the UK
Katie Piper has gained wide recognition after surviving being raped and attacked with acid by her ex-boyfriend and an accomplice. She was in fact the patient of Dr. Jawad in London, and his inspiration to return to Pakistan and make the film Saving Face, above.
Unlike women in the countries with the most incidents of acid attack, Katie had immediate access to plastic surgeons and cutting edge technology that made her skin and tissues smoother and more symmetrical after recovery. Nevertheless her recovery was long and painful, and she still requires periodic surgeries on her damaged esophagus in order to continue eating.
Katie used her recognition and fame to begin the Katie Piper Foundation, which aims to provide first-class programs and treatment options for burns and scars in Britain (similar to Centre Ster, in France, where Katie received some of her care). While her work is not restricted to acid attack victims, her own personal story was the inspiration for many doctors (including Dr. Jawad) and donors to address acid burning across the world.
How You Can Help
Cases of acid attacks in the so-called First World Countries are rare, but they are a very real danger to women in many other countries. It is a particularly violent method of demeaning women, and speaking out against it is a necessary step to ensuring safety and dignity to women across the world. The victims of these attacks are left to suffer for years in pain, humiliation, and destitution from their disfigurements, but their lives and self-worth can be improved when they have access to free clinics, trained surgeons, and legislators who will fight for their justice.
No matter which country you live in, you can help victims of acid attack all over the world. Depending on your abilities, you can become involved by doing the following:
- Donate money to an organization that funds burn centers and trained physicians in areas where attacks occur
- Organize an institutional donation through your workplace or company
- Tell your physician about these organizations if you think they could help
- If you are a physician, volunteer your services with a trip to the countries with the highest need to treat victims of acid attack
- Donate medicine and medical supplies to burn clinics in poorer areas
- If you live in countries where acid attacks occur, write to your legislators and encourage justice for these crimes
- Encourage women's rights across the world, no matter where you live
Organizations that Work to Treat Victims and Prevent the Rise of this Crime
Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) is, as they say on their site, "the only organization whose sole purpose is to work towards the end of acid violence across the world" (other organizations generally focus on one country or locality). Because acid violence is something that must change in the attitudes of the local people, ASTI founded partners in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, Uganda, Nepal, and India that not only send physicians in to help, but also to train the local volunteers and medical personnel on how to care for these unique victims. Their site is a great resource on acid attacks and everything that they do to combat it.
The Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) works to eliminate acid violence in Bangladesh. They provide quality medical care, psychological therapy, legal help, support and reintegration to victims of acid and burning attacks. They also raise awareness to prevent this crime.
Project SAAVE, mentioned above, seeks to build a burn center in Lahore, Pakistan, train Imams on preventing acid violence, and raise awareness in acid violence-prone areas.
The Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC) provides a free clinic in Cambodia to acid burn victims, providing medical treatment, support, skills training, and acid safety education. They also push for proper legislation and law enforcement to bring justice to victims and reduce instances of this crime.
The Palash Foundation in India works with the burn unit in the Lokmanya Tilak Municipal General (Sion) Hospital in Mumbai to provide moral support and workshops to those who have suffered disfigurement. They also seek to educate society on disfigurement through seminars and an online presence.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Amy