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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Acid crimes are falling, but attitudes still must change

A doctor inspects the wounds of Sum Sokny – the first victim of an acid crime this year in Cambodia – earlier this month at Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital after she was attacked by her husband in Meanchey district.
A doctor inspects the wounds of Sum Sokny – the first victim of an acid crime this year in Cambodia – earlier this month at Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital after she was attacked by her husband in Meanchey district. Heng Chivoan

Acid crimes are falling, but attitudes still must change

The first acid attack of 2016 in Cambodia occurred in the second week of February, receiving all the press deserved by such an outrageous crime.

Although victims and perpetrators of acid attacks in Cambodia are almost half women and half men, globally, acid attacks target primarily women and are internationally recognised as a gender-based crime; that is, violence committed against women because they are women or that affect women disproportionately.

The gendered dimensions were all too apparent in the facts and bystander commentaries as described by the media coverage. First, the attack was perpetrated by a husband against his wife during a divorce process he did not want.

As seen around the world, domestic violence frequently escalates when a woman attempts to remove herself from her violent situation. It is for this reason that the location of shelters for those fleeing violence should be secret, and require 24/7 security.

Witnesses and bystanders to the attack told reporters they did not intervene to help the victim as they thought she was the perpetrator’s mistress, not his wife. In other words, some people justify such a heinous crime against a woman, if she contravenes social mores based on traditional gender stereotypes.

Another witness to the crime stated that she declined to intervene because she was afraid that it was a “family dispute”.

The widespread belief, held by victims and society at large, that domestic violence is a private matter not warranting police or other intervention is one of the biggest barriers to protecting women and girls and ensuring their access to needed services to enable them to escape the violence.

Intervention by bystanders to protect or assist a victim of violence is seen as warranted and commendable in countries characterised by the absence of police protection, especially in cases of violence against women – that is, against half the population. It is the duty of the State, not citizens, to protect victims from violence, prosecute the perpetrators and prevent such violence from occurring in the first place.

Police may only respond in egregious cases, leaving most victims vulnerable to most forms of violence most of the time. This perpetuates a lack of confidence and trust that the police will properly pursue cases of gender-based violence, and consequently prevents other victims from bringing their cases forward.

Domestic violence constitutes an internationally recognised human rights violation. National and international courts around the world have held governments accountable for not protecting a woman’s right to life, her right to be free of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, her right to physical integrity, and her right to be free from all forms of discrimination, to name only a few of the rights implicated in family violence.

Cambodian women deserve as much protection as other women around the world. The Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence provides for protection orders to be issued in just such cases, requiring the police to prevent violent perpetrators from approaching victims, but is very rarely implemented.

While there has been a decrease in acid attacks since the passage of Cambodia’s Law on Regulating Concentrate Acid in 2012, barriers still exist for victims in receiving the critical support services needed and in accessing justice.

Cambodia’s government needs to establish programs to support victims of acid attacks as outlined in articles 11 and 12 of the Acid Law. For acid violence to be eliminated in Cambodia, and for survivors to receive the vital support needed for them to heal and access justice, the Acid Law must be effectively implemented and enforced.

Gendered attitudes emphasising the motive behind acid attacks and blaming victims of such a horrendous crime need to change.

The slogan of this year’s 16 Days Campaign to end violence against women sent a clear and simple message: Violence is never acceptable: shift the blame. No act committed by the victim in this case could have justified the violence committed against her.

Lori Mann is the program manager for Ending Violence against Women, UN Women Cambodia, and Erin Bourgois is the former project manager of Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity.

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