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Activists seek aid for acid victims

CAMPAIGNERS have called on the government to ramp up health-care and rehabilitation services for victims of acid attacks, following a meeting between representatives of seven local NGOs and a delegation of American researchers in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.

The meeting, organised by Cambodia’s Committee to Eliminate All Discrimination Against Women (NGO-CEDAW), was timed to capitalise on the attention being paid to acid crimes, as a government committee prepares to finalise a draft of legislation addressing the issue, said Dr Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the rights group Licadho and chair of NGO-CEDAW.

“As the government of Cambodia is drafting this new law, it creates momentum for us,” she said after the meeting.

Pung Chhiv Kek praised the committee’s focus on the imposition of harsh penalties for perpetrators of acid crimes and the regulation of acid sales, but said the government should also provide physical and mental health care for survivors of acid attacks. In addition, she said, public education campaigns should be initiated to discourage discrimination against victims.

Unlike most other countries, Cambodia does not have state-run burn units, she said, adding that NGOs currently provide medical care for most acid attack victims.

“We would like to see in the hospitals a special unit dedicated to providing a service for acid victims,” Pung Chhiv Kek said. “It’s not the duty of the NGOs, it’s the duty of the state to provide this service, and we would like to see this provided free of charge.”

She also said that many victims suffer from ongoing trauma, and that it is the duty of the government to offer them psychological support.

“Half of the acid victims told me they don’t want to live. They say they feel half-alive like ghosts or don’t want to go out in public because they feel like monsters,” she said.

Chhun Sophea, programme manager of the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, also attended Tuesday’s meeting and joined the call for improved services for victims. “You need to cover not only medical health but also mental health care and reintegration into society,” she said, adding that victims of acid attacks often lose their jobs or are unable to return to work.

“This is partly why a lot of people don’t even press charges,” she said. “They can’t afford to support themselves and cover legal expenses.”

The committee’s work
Teng Savong, secretary of state at the Interior Ministry and head of the committee drafting the acid law, said Tuesday that improvements to healthcare and rehabilitation services for victims of attacks had been discussed by the committee, but noted that the government had not yet allocated funding for such services.

“We have thought about those points as well, but we cannot force the government to do it quickly because it is according to the government budget – whether there is a budget for this project or not,” he said, adding that the law was a massive undertaking, and that state services for acid victims would need to be upgraded accordingly.

“I think that it is very good if we can have our own centre and free physical and mental healthcare for acid victims,” he said. “I have seen that acid victims do not receive much sympathy from the community.”

Teng Savong said he agreed with Pung Chhiv Kek that public education campaigns were needed, but said this was not necessarily contingent on legislation.

“I think public education should not need to be written in the law, but we can educate people after the acid law is approved,” he said, adding that the committee plans to consult with NGOs to create an effective public-education campaign.

The delegation of researchers from the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell University Law School were present at Tuesday’s discussion to collect information as part of a comparative analysis of acid attacks and related issues in Cambodia, Bangladesh and India. The team expects to release a report designed to help guide legal reforms in the three countries later this year.

Teng Savong said he would meet with the delegation later this week, and that he would welcome any suggestions it had for the draft law. “I am happy that the other countries want to help us and share information because to create an acid law is new work for us,” he said.

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