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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Acid attack

Acid attack

acid.jpg
acid.jpg

Across a dusty hospital courtyard, a young woman limps slowly, the corner of a smile

furling shyly from behind a faded krama wrapped about her head.

Sopheap's husband has never been charged with the attack and she lives in fear that he will attack again. "I have lost everything. I am very disappointed with my life."

Angry red scabs on her thin arms split as she moves, and wounds on her legs weep

through her thin cotton pyjamas as she sits down. Beneath the headscarf, deep scars

pour down her face and disappear beneath her top

Sopheap's (not her real name) 24-year-old body is no stranger to violence.

She was just 17 when her parents arranged for her to marry a man from her village.

Her shins still bear the scars of the brutal four-year partnership, of the husband

that would slash at her with a knife during disputes, forcing her to leave her young

daughter and flee to the capital and go into hiding.

Her more recent scars, those still raw, are the mark of the same partner after he

followed her to the city and found her three years later. He demanded money and promised

that if she did not pay she would "meet with a problem". Two days later,

he approached her as she returned home one evening and tossed a bottle of concentrated

acid over her body.

The vicious liquid splashed down her face and back, eating into her flesh. "At

first I thought he had thrown water at me, but then I felt the pain - it was so hot,

it seared my skin."

She instinctively threw an arm across her face, an act that was to spare her eyesight,

but her body was badly damaged. She has already undergone three operations and even

after she is discharged from hospital will require monthly visits to monitor the

slow healing of her wounds.

Acid attacks are a horrific reality in Cambodia. There are no official statistics

on such attacks but in a recent survey, human rights NGO Licadho used newspaper articles

to document the violence, and said reported attacks have increased.

Last year, there were 21 acid attacks in the newspapers, an average of one every

17 days. In the three years leading up to November 2002, attacks averaged one every

25 days.

Acid throwers use undiluted sulphuric or nitric acids, both readily available in

Cambodia to clear blockages in drains, clean gold, and diluted for use in car and

motorcycle batteries. The effects of such a caustic substance on human skin are brutal.

Emotionally, the acid is equally corrosive.

'I am very disappointed with my life'

Sopheap is doing her best to remain upbeat, but the scars of despair run deep. She

bursts into tears when she catches sight of herself in the mirror, and she worries

about the future. With no family support, she depends on the help of the Cambodian

Women's Crisis Centre (CWCC) and predicts that she will find it difficult to find

work. "Before, it took me months to find a job. Now I am ugly like this, who

will hire me? I feel very worried."

She also fears that her husband will attack again. Like so many crimes of this kind,

the assault on Sopheap remains unpunished. Although she has told authorities where

he is, he has never been charged with the attack.

Statistically, this is unsurprising. Of the 44 attacks covered by the Licadho report,

only 13 arrests and six convictions were known. Those convictions show a wide inconsistency

in sentencing. In one court alone, sentences for acid violence ranged from 18 years

to nine months imprisonment, to a two-year suspended sentence (no time in prison).

The report also notes that those with power or money are less likely to be convicted

and points to the attack on 15-year-old karaoke singer Tat Marina. The court issued

an arrest warrant for the wife of a senior government official in connection with

the attack, but she was never arrested. Sopheap believes that even if her husband

were arrested, he could buy his freedom. "Here, it is very unfair. There is

no justice," she says.

Sopheap says her husband attacked her because she left him and she doubts the attack

ameliorated his rage. From within the safety of the hospital grounds, she lives in

fear. "I am afraid my husband will kill me."

"I have lost everything. I am very disappointed with my life," she says.

Sadly, as a victim of jealousy and revenge Sopheap is not alone. Acid is traditionally

the weapon of jilted lovers, so hurt by rejection they seek to render the victim

unlovable. The Licadho report shows that a majority of acid attacks fall into this

category, committed either by a wife against her husband's suspected mistress or

second wife, or by a husband or wife against their spouse due to divorce or suspected

infidelity.

A desperate last resort

But acid is also used in self defence. In a society where women are largely powerless,

with little recourse to justice or means of protection, weapons such as acid are

a desperate last resort.

Lek Shorn knows what it is to feel desperate. The 33-year-old spent seven years trapped

in a loveless marriage to a former soldier with a "mean spirit" and a penchant

for rice wine.

Drinking forms the fabric of many rural communities in which men get together in

the evenings to imbibe and discuss the day. But the drink here has a potent twist:

battery acid. Small amounts of the acid are often mixed with the brew to give it

an added kick.

The acid and her husband's anger management issues were an explosive mix. He beat

her every day. "He hit me like an animal," she said. "There were only

one or two days per month that he didn't hit me."

Tired of the daily beatings and of working in the rice fields alone while her husband

slept off his daily hangovers, Shorn complained to the village chief a number of

times, seeking a divorce. She was not successful. "It was no good. The chief

always persuaded my husband and me to understand each other."

Such an attitude is not uncommon where domestic violence is all too often accepted

and ignored. A recent survey showed that one in four women are abused by their husbands.

Their powers to protect themselves, both legally and socially, are few.

But self-preservation is a compelling instinct. When Shorn found a container of acid

on a remorque-moto one day, she picked it up and took it home. It sat in a corner

of her hut for a week until one May day in 2000, as her husband began to hit her

for the second time that day, coming at her with a stick and a knife, she threw the

acid at him.

The acid melted his flesh, gouging into one eye socket and blinding him in one eye,

and searing strips down his arms and torso where it splashed on his skin.

Shorn was arrested the next day and imprisoned for four years.

Cause and effect

Shorn explains her actions with a Cambodian proverb: 'If you hit a tree with a stick,

the fruit falls down'. Fruit collecting, like life, depends upon the basic rules

of cause and effect. From every action comes a reaction.

"No one sleeps and waits for another cursing and beating," she says. "I

am human, so I have to react. I tell you the truth, I threw the acid at him because

it was so painful to be patient. I threw the acid in order to relieve my anger and

my pain."

To attempt to understand acid throwing, one must look to Cambodian society where

high levels of violence, mistrust and fear are the legacy of decades of war, genocide

and poverty.

Ung Bunthan, who authored the Licadho report, describes Cambodian society as a clenched

fist. He says there is enormous tension in society as there has never been any release

from the stress and suffering of the nation. "Everybody in Cambodia is trying

to survive for themselves. People are still very concerned about their lives, poverty,

injustice..."

The Licadho report goes further: "Many people use violence as a way to settle

problems or disputes. Violence is common within families, as well as social problems

such as alcoholism, marital quarrels and infidelity.... Women have little power to

stop misconduct by their husbands or get justice for it."

While Bunthan is quick to point out that acid throwing is not solely the reserve

of women, he says the marginalisation and widespread discrimination of women in society

are aften at the root of the problem. "In rural areas especially, women have

no choice. If their husband beats them, they have no power."

Lek Shorn agrees. "Acid is the last resort for women. They are so powerless,

they have no other way to protect themselves," she says. "If a woman's

husband goes around with other girls, of course she can throw acid. How else can

she get her life back?"

But she acknowledges that throwing the acid has done little to improve her own life.

At the end of last year she returned to her village to live with her mother and her

two daughters. Crippled by debts, she can see no way of earning money and supporting

herself. From down the road, her ex-husband, blind in one eye and badly maimed, continues

to visit, seeking reconciliation. She says she still fears his temper as he continues

to drink. "It is still difficult, the same as before. As a woman, there is nothing

I can do."

It is this powerlessness, perhaps, that means that despite no improvement in her

circumstances, despite spending four years in prison, sleeping on a dirt floor, separated

from her young children and with only convicts for company, despite causing her ex-husband

so much pain, she will not rule out doing it all again. "It's difficult to say

whether I would throw the acid again or not. All I can say is if no one affects me,

I won't do anything bad. If somebody hurts me, I will react."

This refusal to rule out the use of acid is perhaps more surprising from someone

like Sopheap who lives with a constant reminder of the effects of such destructive

violence.

But the desire for revenge runs deep and Sopheap says if her husband is ever caught,

she will go to the prison and throw acid on him. "I am ugly now, I want to make

him the same," she says.

Releasing the fist

It is this belief in violence as a solution that makes combating acid attacks in

Cambodia such a challenge. Licadho's Bunthan looks almost disconsolate. "How

do we release this clenched fist?" he sighs.

Bunthan talks of healing society. "People have lost their sense of goodness

towards one another. They have never learned a good way to solve their problems."

He says the traditional roles of monks and elders - achar and daunchee - are the

key to reaching people, to "bringing them back". " We have to come

to people in traditional ways. But it's not easy to do. When you go to the village

you can see the achar have the same clenched fist. This is the biggest problem."

NGOs such as Licadho, Rose Organisation and Association of the Blind in Cambodia

(ABC) are trying to reach victims to offer support services and help to integrate

them back into society. Bunthan has compiled a list of every acid victim reported

in the main newspapers in the past five years, but he says they are often difficult

to track down. Many victims go into hiding, fearing social stigma or further attacks.

They remain unreachable even by social workers offering assistance. "There's

more pain than you can say. They have lost hope," Bunthan says.

Others, such as Sopheap, seem to find an inner core of strength. With support and

counseling from CWCC she is improving every day and starting to look to the future

if not with hope, with a little less despair.

Licadho's report urges that stronger laws against acid attacks be created and enforced.

It cites the example of Bangladesh where impunity for perpetrators has been blamed

for a large increase in acid attacks and a growth in the types of victims and reasons

for attacks.

Acid throwing is not currently mentioned in existing Cambodian criminal law, but

is punishable under battery or attempted murder charges. A draft law on domestic

violence awaiting approval by the National Assembly contains a provision to punish

acid throwers by five to ten years in prison. But this only covers those who throw

acid on family members. Licadho asserts the provisions in the law should be strengthened

to apply to all acid attacks committed for domestic or personal reasons, not only

if the perpetrator and victim are members of the same family, and to increase maximum

penalties for cases of permanent disability.

But changing the law will be easier than changing attitudes. Bunthan says acid violence

is too often accepted or ignored as society assumes the victim somehow deserved the

attack. "We say it's condemnable, but society sees it differently. Society does

not condemn [the attack] because they think the victim stole someone's husband."

Attitudes need to change, support services strengthened, and clearer legislation

against acid attacks created, the report says.

To this, Bunthan adds a final plea: "I would like to say: 'If you want to use

acid, please think again. Think a hundred times before undertaking any revenge. Use

reason, Use your conscience."

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