Acid attack victims encounter fear and misunderstanding as they try to return to their old lives.
THANG Kham is a nurse with formal training and experience who has also worked as a teacher and, most recently, a cook. But as she prepares to return from Kandal province to her native Siem Reap on Friday, she is worried she won’t be able to find work.
That’s because the 62-year-old suffered severe scars on her face and one arm in an acid attack in Phnom Penh’s Kandal Market 20 years ago that also injured four other women, one of whom died. Though she does not believe she was the target of the attack, she has lived with the scars from it for two decades, eventually seeking assistance at the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC four years ago.
She now believes she is ready to live on her own. “I plan to leave this charity on Friday. I am going to live with my children in Siem Reap province,” she said in an interview Wednesday.
“But I don’t know what kind of job I can do. It is useless for me to look for a job as a nurse since I was attacked, even though I have the ability, because my face is bad-looking and my hands are trembling.”
She added that it would be difficult to continue working as a cook because customers might be scared off by her appearance.
On Monday, Ouk Kimlek, the deputy director of a government committee charged with drafting legislation covering acid crimes, said he planned to introduce an article that would address this very problem. He said it includes language discouraging business owners from refusing to hire applicants with scars or other visible injuries resulting from acid attacks, though he noted that the committee would not necessarily consider suggesting punishments for employers who continue to discriminate against victims.
Staff members and acid attack survivors at the CASC, which recently relocated to Kandal province, say the problem of discrimination is pervasive. Som Bunnarith, a 39-year-old former regional supervisor for Coca Cola who lost his job after he was blinded in an acid attack five years ago, said it is probably similar to the discrimination faced by those with other types of disabilities.
“I think most Cambodian people still look down on disabled people and think the disabled cannot work as normal people, so it is very difficult for disabled people to get a job. Mostly they don’t give us a chance,” he said.
“I support the government and acid committee who try very hard to protect acid victims and always encourage us. It’s especially good that they included the point about the workplace to give a chance for acid victims to work,” he said.
Employers contacted by the Post on Wednesday said that they wanted to offer equal employment opportunities, but that they were concerned about how their customers might react.
Roth Sorphea, owner of Sorphea Restaurant in Battambang town, said she would not hire acid attack survivors for jobs that involve interacting with customers.
“I am afraid of losing my customers when they see their bad face – their ghost face – but I will provide them with jobs because they need help,” she said. “I cannot allow them to work as waitresses or receptionists, or any kinds of job where they have to meet with the customers. I will give them jobs as cleaners or dishwashers, or other jobs where they can hide their face or body from the customers.”
Uch Sophal, commercial and retail manager at Mittapheap-perta Petroleum in Kandal, also said acid survivors could drive away customers.
“I think there are some jobs that those kinds of people can do, such as typing, sending and receiving emails, and sending letters from one place to another, because they don’t need to meet customers,” he said, and added: “Maybe they could do work as the other people and meet with customers if they were attacked with only a bit of acid, like only on the body, and they could wear long clothes to hide the wounds or scars.”
Ziad Samman, a coordinator for CASC, said Wednesday that employers are not the only ones who discriminate against acid burn survivors, and that removing barriers to equal employment opportunities would also require changing the perceptions of customers and co-workers.
He cited a recent example of acid survivors being welcomed by a factory owner, only to be treated warily by other workers: “We got work placements for eight acid survivors in a dog-food factory,” he said. “They were happy to do it and had asked for us to find them a job. By the end of the day they had walked out and quit because of the way people were looking at them and treating them.”
Samman said it was rare to hear stories of acid burn survivors successfully re-entering the workplace.
“I suppose it happens, but there certainly aren’t an overwhelming number of these stories,” he said. “I can’t pull one out of my head right now, which just goes to show that it doesn’t happen as often as we’d like.”
Samman said there is a stigma surrounding acid burn survivors because people assume that all cases are motivated by jealousy. Often, he said, people think attacks stem from domestic disputes involving mistresses. “And therefore all acid burn survivors deserved what they got because they’re sleeping around or something like that,” he said, explaining the mentality.
He said he was hopeful that government attention to the discrimination facing acid survivors could help eliminate the problem.
“The fact that the government has acknowledged this issue or this phenomenon in Cambodia – that’s fantastic. It’s a positive step in the right direction,” he said, adding that public awareness campaigns promoting equal employment opportunities should also be implemented.
“It’s a matter of changing perceptions in society, perhaps, that in the end will be more effective in resolving discrimination and stigmatisation for acid survivors,” he said.