Many assume acid attacks are typical of Southeast Asia, but studies show they occur globally.
What do you think of when you see an acid attack report in the news? Likely you think of a woman in Southeast Asia who was attacked by a man.
Unfortunately this immediate association many of us make with Southeast Asia, obscures a global trend that encompasses both developing and industrialized nations. Notably in 2016 most cases of acid attacks were actually in the United Kingdom, where 454 cases were reported compared to 300 in India. The United Kingdom is also one of the few areas where acid attacks are directed against other men, usually because of gang violence, rather than women.
Still there is some truth to the regional associations some might make. Around “90% of global burn injuries occur in developing countries” according to research presented by Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI). The other truth is the disproportionate targeting of women. ASTI estimates that out of 1,500 cases of gender violence each year, 80% of cases are women. Considering 60% of cases go unreported according to ASTI, it is clear that acid attacks are not a rare event.
The major motive for acid attacks is a desire to disfigure the victim and take away their chance for a future; especially with women, perpetrators often hope to take away their beauty. According to a 2011 study sponsored by programs at Cornell University Law, acid was also viewed as a punishment against women who stepped outside traditional gender roles in patriarchal societies. Other reasons included rejected love, disagreements over land, or marriage disputes (dowry issues).
For Nepalese victim Sangita Magar, gender violence is particularly relevant. Her perpetuator, Jiwan B.K., attacked Magar—who almost lost her eyesight in addition to the scarring—after arguing with her brother over their apartment complex’s shared bathroom. Like most survivors she required extensive treatment.
However when she was attacked in 2015, Nepalese law provided no compensation for her injuries. The required treatment was also not included in the free care the Nepalese government provides it citizens.
So in 2017 Magar and a fellow plaintiff challenged the law in a public interest case to benefit future victims. They successfully brought about financial support for treatment to victims and stronger punishments for perpetrators with a minimum prison sentence of five years as well as fines ranging between 100,000 and 500,000 rupees, dependent on the victim’s injuries. Although the regulation of acid sales has yet to take effect, Nepal’s Supreme Court implemented the other measures in August 2018.
Many hope these changes will help decrease the number of acid attacks in Nepal, where around 40 cases are reported every year according to local NGO Burns Violence Survivors. Indeed, many look to the example of Bangladesh. Following changes in the law in 2002 and regulation of acid sales, reported cases dropped from 494 in 2002 to only 44 reported cases in 2016.
And it is the availability of acid that underlies the global trend. Where guns are not as readily accessible, acid is an easy choice. Acid is easily found in areas that utilize it in agriculture or produce it. But even if an area does not use or produce it, acid is found in household cleaners and paint.
Most places also do not regulate the sale of acid: Europe is one of them. However Belgian Patricia Lefranc, whose ex-lover attacked her in 2009, is leading a campaign to push for identity card checks to regulate acid sales within the European Union.
Currently, the main voice for change is London-based NGO Acid Survivors Trust International., founded in 2002. ASTI strives to “mobilise resources to support in-country partners to assist survivors” with medical treatment as well as therapy for psychological trauma. ASTI also promotes education, advocates policy changes, trains medical professionals, and funds research.
Most importantly, as outlined by the UN in 1992 under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, ASTI is holding countries accountable to their obligation to protect individuals from gender violence and provide services to victims. Their successes reflect this: ASTI helped change Cambodia’s acid laws and reached 6,360 community members in Nepal and Pakistan in an awareness campaign about acid attacks, among other successes.
And it is awareness of the global scope of acid attacks that gives space for all survivors to speak out, if they wish. Awareness also supports NGOs that have been pushing for change. In other words, being aware shows that survivors and their advocates have been heard.
TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.