Acid attacks, also known as ‘vitriolage’, have grown in number since the 1980s and are increasingly used to target women - 80% of victims are female and almost 40% are under the age of 18 - particularly in countries widely considered to be the most dangerous in the world for the fairer sex. Sadly, the true number of times this horrific attack occurs likely eludes records because the nature of the crime means that victims are often from marginalised parts of society, too scared and too ashamed to speak out.
Nicholas Kristof suggests that acid attacks, rather than suicide bombings, are one of the most pertinent and frightening forms of violence to face Pakistani women in modern day society. Perfect strangers are increasingly joining the ranks of the perpetrators, who have tended to be husbands, spurned lovers and extended family members. What was once considered an endemic isolated to South East Asia and parts of Africa has increasingly become a pandemic affecting the global community.
Contrary to popular belief acid attacks are not restricted to any race, religion or geography. Although the majority of attacks occur in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, in recent years attacks have been reported in the United States, Great Britain and South America too with over 250 such occurrences in Colombia in the past three years. The increasingly diverse geography of this crime pierces holes in arguments made by Gadi Adelman in his article “Just a culture thing, or just Islamic?”. He is quick to pick out verses of the Quran which he interprets as advocating the superiority of men over women, and suggests it is this perspective that makes acid attacks so prevalent against women. He stops short of labeling vitriolage as an Islamic crime that predominantly affects countries where Islam is the prevalent religion, but his misplaced insinuations are clear.
The common link between Pakistan and Colombia for example extends further than just being beautiful countries, rich with history, culture and melodic languages. They also share a penchant for a machista societal structure. This inevitably leads to a situation where women are living in a state of perpetual fear and anxiety – not safe in their own homes or the streets of their hometowns and cities where do these vulnerable people turn?
In Pakistan’s Government Hospital, a free clinic, staffed by world-renowned plastic surgeons, exists to help women who have suffered from acid attacks. The clinic works alongside other nationwide clinics and support groups to provide aid and emotional support to these women where the government and their families may fail them. The significance of such support networks is apparent when we consider the context of some of these horrific attacks. One woman‘s husband burned her with acid, her sister-in-law doused her in gasoline and her mother-in-law lit and threw the match that engulfed her body in a fireball. This woman, for want of a secure life for her children, chose to continue living with and depending upon the very same people who came so close to ripping her life away from her. In a country where the legal system still has fundamental flaws to contend with, as well as the rampant problem of corruption, it is inevitable that this woman’s terrible story is not unique.
Although concentrated acids have a wide variety of legitimate uses, car batteries or household cleaning products for example, they can easily destroy lives in a fraction of a second. There is a real and growing need to categorise acid as a potential weapon given its increasingly malicious and life threatening usage. In most countries, as in Uganda, these calls have largely been ignored. Stringent guidelines and restrictions need to be introduced for people buying and selling highly concentrated acids in order to gain some kind of control against this abhorrent crime. Acid attacks continue to rise in India and Cambodia because of how readily available sulphuric and nitric acid are. Conversely, since the enactment of laws in Bangladesh increasing the punishment for acid throwing as well as restricting its availability came into force, the country has seen a 15-20% decrease in the number of annual attacks.
Food for thought: a small bottle of highly concentrated acid enough to disfigure and ruin a woman’s life forever costs less than a pack of 20 Marlboro Lights in India. All it takes is 16 Rupees (INR) – or $0.37 USD to inflict horrific life-long injuries. In Bangladesh, the cost is less than $0.15 USD for a small bottle of acid readily available from the roadside. More continued action must be taken to prevent more victims from suffering the fate of lost faces, lost identities and lost lives.
The author recommends Saving Face, an Academy Award winning documentary about Acid Violence in Pakistan.