The stigma associated with acid attack victims in Cambodia is so intense that many never report the crime in the first place, a reality that has led rights groups to label the actual tally of violence the “dark number”, according to a report released yesterday by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
The centre’s report, which comes in the form of an interactive map that tracks the incidents, accounts for a total of 35 cases of acid violence in the past three years, from 2009 to June 2012.
Those attacks resulted in 59 victims, more than half of whom are female.
The information presented on the map, however, by no means represents the total number of attacks that have occurred in the country over the past few years, according to Ramana Sorn, a project coordinator for the centre.
“By publishing this information, however, we hope to raise awareness of acid violence and contribute to changing public perceptions of acid victims so that they are empowered to report their crimes and so that those responsible can be tried and convicted,” Sorn said in a statement that accompanied the map.
Convictions, though, are hard to come by when the vast majority of acid attack cases never even find their way to court, observers say.
Ziad Samman, a project manager with the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, said that the stigma surrounding victims is not the only reason more cases aren’t reported. The problem can start when a victim seeks treatment.
“They won’t consistently note down ‘acid burn’. They might just note down ‘burn’,” he said. “In order to fully identify what this dark number might be … [lawmakers should] implement a formalised and consistent burns classification system for healthcare providers.”
As for the reported incidents: “What we know is just the tip of the iceberg.”
The Acid Law passed in December last year enacted harsher penalties for convicted attackers, and was supposed to regulate access to acid, which is easy to come by due to its role in the manufacturing and processing of rubber.
In Kampong Cham, home to several rubber plantations, 12 people were victims of acid attacks in the three-year period examined by CCHR, making it second only to Phnom Penh, with 31 victims. But a sub-decree governing the usage of acid and its transportation has yet to be signed.
Ouk Kimlek, under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior and deputy chairman of the Acid Law’s drafting committee, said yesterday it was only a matter of time for that part of the law to go through.
"We will have a meeting to re-check on the sub-decree of the Acid Law next week, and then we will send it to the Council of Ministers.”
Even without the sub-decree, a court can use some articles of the law in court, he said.
Defendants who are convicted in acid-attack cases can face 30 years’ imprisonment, a potential sentence that does not seem to have deterred the perpetrators of the four attacks this year, none of whom have been charged under the new law.
But their victims have not given up. Torn Puth, 42, is the mother of the first acid-attack victim after the law was passed.
She is still waiting for authorities to arrest the person who doused her 23-year-old daughter, Rith Savan, with acid in Phnom Penh earlier this year, causing severe burns on her face, chest, stomach, thighs and legs.
Savan lived in a constant state of fear, her mother said, because the attacker is not in jail.
“I still await justice for my daughter, even if it takes a long time.”
If her case ever makes it to court, fellow survivors may show up in solidarity, as they did this month at the trial of Kong Touch’s alleged attacker.
When acid doesn’t kill, it can permanently disfigure the human body. Touch, 52, from Kampong Cham province, lost her right eye and lives with scars on her face and body after a man threw acid on her late last year.
The verdict in the case, which many in the community of survivors are following, is expected tomorrow. Touch is unsure of the outcome, but is trying to stay optimistic.
“I expect the court will provide justice for me,” she said.