Weakness in Legal Structures Make Acid an Easy Weapon Against Women

 

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DHAKA, BANGLADESH – Minara, a make-up artist at Persona, a salon in Dhaka, is popular with her customers. Her regulars say they admire her strong personality and warming presence.

But beyond her confident smile, her face is disfigured and betrays a horrific past. Customers say that once they got to know her, they were able to look past the acid burns that scar her face.

Minara, who requested her last name be kept confidential because of a pending lawsuit, is a survivor of acid violence. Years ago, a disgruntled neighbor threw acid in Mirana’s face over a dispute that she says she cannot discuss because the case is still pending in court in her home district.

When it comes to acid violence in Bangladesh, Minara is not alone.

Thousands of women in Bangladesh are victims of acid attacks, a gender-specific crime that is little known in most developed nations but is common in Bangladesh. Although there are many motives for acid violence, advocates say the most common motives are relationship problems and jealousy. According to Monira Rahman, the director of the Acid Survivors Foundation, ASF, attacks by spurned men are prevalent. There are laws against acid violence here, but some say judges are hesitant to enforce the strict punishments. While new laws have attempted to regulate the sale of acids commonly used in attacks, advocates say acid sales go on as usual. In response, several new nongovernmental organizations and business owners have joined forces to seek justice for victims of acid violence.

According to the ASF, acid attacks mainly result from disputes related to dowries;; land, property or money; marriage; and the refusal or rejection of love, marriage or sex. From January to October 2010, there were 118 victims of acid violence here. Victims tend to be 25 to 34 years old, according to ASF statistics from 2009. According to Odhikar, a human rights organization, 2,163 people were victims of acid violence in Bangladesh from 2001 to 2010. Although men and children are also subjected to acid violence, women account for the majority of acid victims.

“Women victims of acid attacks must go on with their lives with permanent physical injuries and scarring, which reminds them of the incident and perpetuates a feeling of shame and embarrassment,” Manfred Nowak, U.N. special rapporteur on torture, wrote in a September 2010 statement. “Many women survivors of acid attacks seclude themselves in hiding for fear of rejection and stigma from their families and/or communities.”

It is difficult for women who have survived acid attacks to find work and marriage partners, according to the ASF.

In Bangladesh, attackers typically use nitric or sulfuric acids, which cause skin tissues to melt. The acid often exposes the bones below the flesh and sometimes even dissolves the bone. If acid comes in close contact with the eyes, it may cause permanent damage and blindness.

Atique Sobhan, clinical psychologist, attributes this desire to permanently damage someone to anger, perhaps stemming from frustration with a situation or a relationship. Offenders use acid because it is cheap and easily available, he says.

“Anger is probably the root cause of this violence, which links to a perception of making a permanent damage or hurt,” Sobhan says. 

While acid attacks have become prevalent in Bangladesh – the most attacks in the world happen in Cambodia, Uganda and Bangladesh – government efforts to curb the violence have been called weak and have been widely criticized by human rights organizations.

In 2002, the government here enacted the Acid Control Act and the Acid Crime Control Act to curb acid violence. The acts aim to control acid crimes by prosecuting cases before a special tribunal. But legal experts say that the harsh punishments imposed by the law – which range from three to 15 years in prison and a fine to life in prison or even capital punishment – deter judges from prosecuting cases. Inadequate evidence, victims’ unwillingness to come forward and lack of witness testimony also weaken prosecution rates.

The Acid Control Act also seeks to regulate the availability of acid and other corrosive substances. But many say efforts to regulate the common substances used in acid attacks are not working.

M. S. Siddiqui, spokesman from Bangla Chemical, an industrial chemical company, says that creating a lengthy bureaucratic process to monitor acid trading may bring more problems. Siddiqui says that the law should be focused on controlling acid violence, rather than on controlling the businesses that import, produce, store, transport, sell and use acid.

“Here in Bangladesh, no law or policy has been evaluated from the cost or financial point of view,” Siddiqui says. “Often, too many restrictions on business make the licensing process complicated and expensive.”

Chandan Mollik, the owner of a small jewelry shop in Narayangang, says that, despite government regulations, open market acid trading still goes on. “Sulfuric and nitric acids are common and can be bought at anytime if you have money,” Mollik says.

Taskin Fahmina, Odhikar program coordinator, agrees that the laws have not been properly implemented.

“Though under the existing law, acid selling, buying, importing or exporting is prohibited without license, acid is widely available in the market and without license,” Fahmina says. “Wide availability of acid, lack of action [by] law enforcement agencies to prohibit its selling and buying without license, [and] protection of the alleged perpetrator by the political quarters are the problems regarding the containment of this crime.” 

Dr. Saira Rahman Khan, a legal expert on the issue, says that overburdened police are unable to carry out investigations into acid attacks, which are often lengthy due to evidence collection and seeking out witness testimony. The specialized investigation unit stipulated by the law has also yet to be created.

Another barrier is that local doctors here often have difficulty treating victims because of a lack of experience and training.

“In addition, doctors are unable to identify acid burns due to a lack of training, medical certificates are not clear and sometimes vital information is not noted down, thus weakening the evidence,” Khan says. “Furthermore, many doctors are reluctant to go to court to give evidence. A lack of judges and judicial officers in the lower courts causes delays in the hearings as well, and, consequently, cases are either not heard on time or remain pending.”

While legal and medical aspects of acid violence remain weak and under-implemented, many local organizations are working for increased care, treatment and prosecution rates. In response to the weaknesses of local policy, NGOs and businesses have taken it upon themselves to seek justice for victims of acid violence.

“Women human rights defenders are playing an important role to combat acid violence,” Fahmina says of Odhikar. “The trained defenders keep track [of] records of acid violence cases, engage in advocacy and awareness building activities against such violence and work as a pressure group to press the authority to punish the perpetrator.”

The ASF partners with other Bangladeshi NGOs to offer legal aid to survivors. The ASF lobbies with the National Acid Control Council, NACC, the District Acid Control Council, local government officials and the civil society to raise awareness, focus on the implementation of laws, address acid users and ensure the availability of support services at the grassroots level.

Mirana’s employer, Kaniz Almas, the owner of Persona, says the salon is a passionate believer in corporate social responsibility. Almas says she has opened Persona’s door to acid survivors in hopes of reintegrating them into society and helping them to feel empowered.

“Our corporate social responsibility programs are designed to provide long-term benefits to our customers, employees, stakeholders, partners and individuals in communities around the world,” Almas says.

Other organizations throughout Bangladesh, like the NACC, were also established to develop monitoring mechanisms for acid trading and to offer services to survivors.