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Acid Attacks - Heinous Crimes against Women

Shadnaz Khan

(Ed. note: The author is a member of Odhikar, a coalition of human rights organisations in Bangladesh.)

Acid-throwing is one of the most alarming and horrific forms of violence especially targeted at women. Unfortunately, Bangladesh has the highest incidence of such attacks in the world. Despite increased public awareness and efforts of the government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to tackle the problem, the number of acid attacks in the country is on the rise.

Acid-throwing has a devastating effect on the victims. It inflicts lifelong suffering on them. Even a small amount of acid - sulphuric or nitric - melts the skin tissues, often with the bones underneath exposed or dissolved. Other effects include permanent disfigurement, scars on the face and body and narrowing of the person's nostrils, eyelids and ears. In most cases, vital organs of the survivors, especially the eyes, are permanently damaged. It has a catastrophic impact on the lives of the victims psychologically, socially and financially.

Victims have to cope too with the horror expressed by other people who look at them. They have to stop studying or working to avoid any humiliation or embarrassment, and it takes a long time for them to recover. Their lifestyle changes completely. In practice, they are almost isolated from society.

In addition, survivors need highly sophisticated and prolonged medical care, which is not easily available in Bangladesh, and the cost of treatment is very high. Just a one-hour operation costs several hundred U.S. dollars, and victims usually have to undergo more than one surgical treatment. Most of the victims are from poor families and cannot afford this expense. Their families have to spend all their money and even need to borrow money to pay for the treatment.

In one case, for example, a 16-year-old girl from a poor family, Dolly Akhter, was attacked by a young man because she refused to marry him. Her father had to spend all his money on her treatment. She underwent several intensive surgeries. Still, she has lost an eye, and permanent scars remain on her face. She does not go to her village and has stopped attending school since the attack. Fortunately, she has received assistance from UNICEF and the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF); she now works as a tailor with the ASF. Although Akhter is courageous enough to start a new life after having such a devastating experience at a young age, her lifestyle has changed completely.

There is another girl named Bina who is one of the first acid victims to speak publicly about her violent encounter with acid. She also comes from a poor family. She was attacked when she tried to save her cousin from a masked man who was trying to pour acid on her cousin's face in the middle of the night. Bina was a talented athlete and aspired to take part in international competitions, but her dreams were shattered after this incident.

Acid violence is not just an isolated human rights violation but is part of a broader type of cruelty rooted in the universal phenomenon of gender violence. Although the public role of women has increased steadily over the years and in countries like Bangladesh even poor village women and girls are leaving their homes for education and work, the male-dominated society's attitude towards women has not changed significantly. As these women lack proper security, both inside and outside of their home, they become vulnerable to acid attacks.

Increasing Acid Attacks

The number of acid-throwing incidents in Bangladesh is increasing every year. The country's first documented case occurred in 1967. Over the years, the number of incidents has progressively increased from a dozen a year to about 50 a year in the mid-1990s. In the late 1990s, there was a considerable increase in the number of reported attacks. NGOs believe that this growth was an actual rise in the number of incidents rather than the result of more media exposure and an improved reporting system. Sometimes cases are unreported, but the number of unreported cases, on average, is less than 50 a year. According to the ASF, which has worked exclusively for acid victims since 1999, there were 115 cases of acid attack between May and December that year. The number recorded then rose gradually every year to 366 in 2002. The figures for 2003 and 2004 were 335 and 266 respectively. This trend, indeed, is alarming.
The number of female victims has also been increasing over the years. In 2004, nearly 73 percent of the victims were women, the ASF said.

Most of the attackers go unpunished though. Many victims do not file cases against perpetrators because of fear and police corruption. The problem is aggravated by the lack of implementation of existing laws and the negligence of law enforcement agencies. Only 14 death penalties have been rendered thus far. The convicts, however, have not been executed as these judgments are pending approval from the High Court. Moreover, the inherent delay in the legal process allows the perpetrators to escape punishment, and this phenomenon, in turn, sends the wrong signal to society.

Socio-economic Factors behind Acid-Throwing

By examining cases over the past few years, seven main causes of the crime are found, namely: land disputes, refusals of a relationship or marriage proposal, failures of a girl to bring a dowry to her husband, family disputes, marital disputes, political rivalries and the accidental presence of the victims at the scene.

Land and property disputes are the most significant reason for acid attacks in Bangladesh though. As the litigation process in the country is very time-consuming, it often takes a substantial period of time to settle a land or property-related dispute legally. In addition, corruption is involved in almost every step of the proceedings, and it becomes quite costly to continue a case for such a long time. Under these circumstances, acid-throwing is often used as a weapon to weaken an opponent physically, mentally and financially so that he or she would not dare to persist with legal action. As most acid attackers go unpunished, this further encourages them to commit the crime repeatedly. According to the ASF, the problem of land disputes accounted for 27 percent of total acid attacks in 2003, the highest among all the causes.

Refusals of a relationship or marriage proposal are another important factor in acid attacks, particularly on adolescent girls. In Bangladesh's male-dominated society, a girl's refusal to have a relationship with a man or rejection of his marriage proposal is not well received by the man himself. In many cases, especially in rural areas where the enforcement of law and order is not very strict, the spoiled young men take revenge by throwing acid on the girls. The victims mostly come from poor families and are not well protected by their families. Girls and children are vulnerable to acid attacks or attacks of any kind at any time as they can be easily approached by anyone on their way to school or when they go out to fetch water or collect firewood. The access of poor people to police and legal assistance, as well as medical facilities, is very limited. In 2002, only 9 percent of the total cases of acid attacks were related to the refusal of a relationship or proposal, but the percentage jumped to 17 percent in 2003.

The lack of security for poor girls and children has also contributed to the rising number of acid attacks on those who were accidentally present at the scene. As most cases have occurred at night when the victims have been asleep, anyone who was with the victims at the time of the attacks - usually a sister, relative or child - was also injured. This reason comprised 10 percent and 17 percent of the total number of acid attacks in 2002 and 2003 respectively.

Dowry, which is a known cause of violence against women, in general, is also a source of acid attacks. Following Islamic customs, a dowry is a compulsory gift or amount of money that must be given by the husband to the wife. Conversely, in Hinduism, the custom is that the dowry has to be paid by the wife's father to the husband. In reality, this Hindu custom is practised in low-income groups of both the Hindu and Muslim communities in Bangladesh. Failure to give a dowry often means death for the wife or an acid burn on her face and body. The dowry issue triggered 6 percent of the total cases of acid attacks in both 2002 and 2003.

Growing social and political intolerance, declining moral values, the easy availability of acid, the deterioration of law and order and the traditional mindset of men who refuse to tolerate the advances of women in social life have translated into acid violence against women. To combat the problem rigorously, all of the socio-economic determinants behind this violence must be taken into consideration and be addressed simultaneously.

Quality Medical Care Needed

Acid survivors are never cured completely. Their lifestyle becomes different from an ordinary person, and they must follow all of the restrictions prescribed by doctors carefully to avoid further physical complications. First, however, the victims need sophisticated medical facilities for specialised plastic surgery. They have to undergo several operations, which are very costly. It is nearly impossible for most families to pay for the extensive surgery needed to reconstruct the damaged faces of the victims, which costs more than US,000. The acid survivors also need specialised psychological treatment to emerge from the horror and trauma they have experienced.

Since 1999, with the help of international and local NGOs, about 24 acid survivors had been reportedly taken to the United States and Europe for six to 12 months for higher quality treatment. Not all of the survivors are so lucky though, and it is not possible to send every single acid victim to developed countries for treatment. Most victims have to depend on Bangladesh's own health care system and existing medical facilities, which are less than adequate.

There are only nine plastic surgeons in the country, for example. Seven of them work in government hospitals while the other two are in private hospitals. The burn unit of the Dhaka Medical College is the only public hospital to treat acid victims. The unit used to have only eight beds, and patients had to wait in lines even when they needed immediate treatment. The situation was so bad that doctors had to discharge the victims after conducting only the most basic reconstructive surgery. There was no modern equipment and not enough trained nurses. The patients' bandages were often changed by floor cleaners, although lately the situation is improving. On April 20, 2004, a new full-fledged burn unit at the medical college was opened with 50 beds and a well-equipped operation theatre. Fifty-eight doctors and some additional staff were appointed. Prof. Samanta Lal Sen, chief of the hospital's burn unit project, expects that the new unit will improve treatment immensely.

Bangladesh has only about four other hospitals, apart from the Dhaka Medical College, that can provide treatment to the acid-attack victims. The ASF has begun its own hospital called Jibon Tara in Banani exclusively for acid-burn patients. The hospital has 40 beds and a fully equipped operation theatre for reconstructive surgery. Foreign plastic surgeons, who are volunteers, conduct the operations with local surgeons. The ASF provides special care and post-surgery medicine to the patients. The group also runs a 15-bed rehabilitation centre named Thikana and an independent specialised support unit to help the trauma victims. In another private initiative, with the help of the Prothom Alo Fund, a hospital in Khulna has begun offering high-quality medical care for acid victims.

Yet there is still room for improvement, as Dr. Sen notes: "Unless all the district hospitals have independent burn units, it is difficult to cope with the situation."

The Challenges of Reintegrating into Society

Along with the physical suffering, the acid survivors have to deal with mental trauma as well. Many victims are frustrated, and some of them have suicidal tendencies. They need periodic counselling by trained psychotherapists to recover from the shock and frustration.

The fact that acid survivors can never regain their original appearance has a severe impact on their social lives. No disease or catastrophe can make such a terrible change to a human face like acid-throwing. It is tough for the victims to accept their new identities. It is even harder for them to face the reality that people around them are horrified at the sight of their looks and that they are no longer accepted in society, for many people are not ready to accept the victims when they return to their villages after treatment. Even the victims' own families see them as a burden because the cost of taking care of them is very high. In Bangladeshi society, the acid victims are treated as pariahs, and this lack of acceptance makes social reintegration and marriage more difficult for them.

Moreover, the working capabilities of acid victims drop significantly. Because of physical problems, such as the loss of their eyesight or hearing and the sensitivity of their skin to heat and sunlight, the victims can only do very limited types of jobs. Their income-generating power decreases. Young victims, meanwhile, have to stop going to school. Even after they have recovered, most of them cannot continue their studies because of their unstable physical conditions. They thus cannot develop skills that they could have fostered otherwise.

Although there are efforts by NGOs and benevolent funds to help the acid survivors integrate back into society, a complete reintegration has not been possible yet. The physical incapability of the victims, along with social and economic barriers, makes reintegration very difficult. Moreover, very often the victims are deprived of justice: perpetrators are not penalised and can continue to harass the victims.

The lives of acid victims and their family members are often at risk when they try to bring the perpetrator to justice. In cases where the culprits belong to rich and influential families, the situation becomes worse. The offenders often threaten the victims and their families that, if they do not withdraw their cases, there will be further suffering for them. For example, the sister of an acid survivor named Iva was brutally killed because she filed a case against the culprits. These incidents occur because the victims generally come from poor families and are incapable of defending themselves against influential perpetrators, especially when state organs, such as the police, are not supportive. This explains why the victims cannot return home in most cases and must live lives isolated from their families in NGO rehabilitation centres.

Despite new laws to curb acid violence, there is little improvement, for the laws have not been properly implemented. Only a handful of perpetrators are brought to justice and given punishment. Any negligence on the part of doctors, the police, lawyers and the judiciary weakens the cases of victims, and, as a result, the perpetrators remain at large.

In two workshops in 2002, the ASF, together with the Legal Education and Training Institute of the Bangladesh Bar Council, identified the problems hindering victims from obtaining justice. These problems included the unavailability of a medical certificate containing all of the vital information about the acid burns that ought to be issued by the doctor, reluctance of the doctor to act as a witness in court, delays in the court proceedings and lack of a detailed investigation by the police.
What Can Be Done to Help

To improve the situation, firstly, law enforcement agencies must step up their efficiency in combating the crime of acid-throwing, and the judicial system has to implement the country's laws. A clear signal has to be sent to society that criminals will be brought to justice and punished no matter how powerful they are.

Secondly, the selling of acid or other corrosive substances needs to be strictly controlled. Mere legal provisions are not enough. There should be a high-powered authority to control the sale of acids. Building public awareness in this regard may also help.

Thirdly, there should be proper medical facilities available in all district hospitals to provide much-needed primary care to acid-burn victims.

Fourthly, making use of the distorted face of the victims in public awareness programmes should be stopped because it may encourage others to commit acid-related crimes. According to the law, a victim's name and identity should not be disclosed in the media. This legal provision is important to prevent additional social humiliation and isolation for victims.

Finally, there should be efforts to change the public attitude towards acid survivors. The victims should be treated as normal human beings. Instead of isolating the victims, the public should be encouraged to help the victims restore their confidence and strength. A public awareness programme is needed.

A message must be sent to society that the state genuinely considers acid violence a heinous crime and that whoever takes part in the crime will be severely punished. To realise this aim, Bangladesh needs efficient law enforcement agencies and an effective judicial system to work together with the public to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Acid Attacks in Bangladesh

Year No. of Incidents No. of Victims
2000 172 226
2001 250 343
2002 366 484
2003 335 410
2004 266 322
Total 1389 1785
(Source: Acid Survivors Foundation)

Posted on 2005-08-22
Asian Human Rights Commission

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