Bangladesh is not just the world's most densely populated country. It holds another far more macabre record for the highest number of women disfigured in acid attacks. Crimes involving the use of corrosive acid to disfigure and sometimes kill young women are alarmingly common. The growing number of acid assaults in Bangladesh reflects an epidemic of gender violence and is a reaction to women's advancing economic and social status. Emdad Rahman investigates.
|Unicef Definition of an acid attack… |
’In an acid attack, a man throws acid (the kind found in car batteries) on the face of a girl or woman. Any number of reasons can lead to acid attacks. A rejected marriage proposal is offered as justification for a man to disfigure a woman with acid.’
Sulphuric acid is ubiquitous, being the basic, inexpensive ingredient for making lead acid batteries in all motorised vehicles all over the world. There does not appear to be any way of reducing its availability in any way. The court system in Bangladesh has only recently started to administer stiff punishments to perpetrators, hoping that this will work as a deterrent to others.
Acid attacks on women and girls are on the rise in Bangladesh. Sulphuric acid, cheap and easily accessible like kerosene, has emerged as a weapon used to disfigure and sometimes kill women and girls. Reported reasons for the acid-throwing attacks include the refusal of an offer of marriage, dowry disputes, domestic fights, and disputes over property. Acid attacks leave the victims scarred and often blinded. Treatment, too expensive for most victims, is an excruciatingly painful experience.
13-year-old Jannatul Ferdous awoke from her sleep with the sensation that an extra linen sheet was being pulled over her body. Seconds later, excruciating pain enveloped her chest and face. A sudden pain jolted the back of her brother, who was sleeping beside her in the small bed. A cup of battery acid thrown through the window engulfed the young girl and her brother as they lay sleeping.
The perpetrator was a young man in his twenties, angry that Jannat had refused his wedding proposals. Jannat's family had heard about acid attacks on women, but it was not until after daybreak that her parents realised the severity of the situation and took her to a nearby medical clinic in the rural Lakshmipur region of Bangladesh, several hundred kilometres north of downtown Dhaka. The next day she was treated at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, having spent hours in the waiting room despite third-degree burns.
Approximately 300 people in Bangladesh share Jannat's experience each year, and 41 percent of victims are under the age of 18. Latest figures released by the Acid Survivors' Foundation show that 338 acid attacks were carried out across the country last year, which is 50 per cent higher than the previous year's. It has reported over 60 acid attacks in the first two months of this year. Tragically, the attack on Jannat was characteristic for several reasons. It is often the case that attacks take place in the middle of the night, that a nearby family member is also victim to the attack, and that the victim does not get quick or adequate medical attention despite his or her urgent need of it. Further, 78 percent of reported acid violence happens to women, with the most common reasons for attack being the refusal of marriage or the rejection of romance.
Acid attacks leave victims horribly disfigured. Because most attacks are directed at the face in order to permanently scar the victim and destroy their physical appearance. Often the victim is left blinded. Jannatul is considered fortunate with regard to the extent of the medical care she has received: she spent ten weeks in the Dhaka hospital and also spent a year in Florida to receive special plastic surgery. Despite this care, permanent scars still mar her face. Even after extensive treatment gauges inevitably remain, making social reintegration and marriage very difficult. Victims usually become depressed and are treated as outcasts by family, neighbours, and friends.
In the past UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy has issued strong attacks against culturally sanctioned homicidal violence directed at women and girls around the world. She is on record as saying that, 'honour' killings, acid violence, female infanticide and bride burning are examples of men and boys killing or seriously injuring female family and community members with impunity. It is an outrage when those who commit such crimes are openly admired in their communities and are subjected to only token prosecution.’
In response to the growing outcry against violence against women, the Bangladesh government enacted "The Women and Child Repression Control Act--1995," which legislated the death penalty as the maximum punishment for perpetrators of acid attacks. This law, however, has not been effective in reducing the incidents of attacks and the Bangladesh has considered new legislation to address loopholes in the law. The Government is also greatly concerned that there was a 50% increase in such attacks in 2001 compared to 2000.
Bangladesh is not the only country where these barbaric crimes occur. In 2001 Time Asia published a horrifying account of a young Pakistani woman who left her husband and was subjected to an apparently all too common punishment - her husband doused her upper body in acid, severely disfiguring her.
India has endorsed a tough law including death sentence for splashing acid on people and set up an institution of special courts to prosecute all suspected offenders within 90 days of framing of charges. It has also endorsed another law aiming to restrict production, import, transportation, storing and selling of acid in the country.
The two new laws have been enacted in the wake of growing acts of acid attacks, particularly on women in India.
Whilst piloting the "Acid Crimes Control Act, 2002, Law Minister Moudud Ahmed told Parliament. "The laws prove that the government is dynamic in addressing crimes like acid attacks."
The law to curb acid crimes suggests death or life imprisonment entailing a fine of a maximum of 1 Lakh Takas if someone is found guilty of killing a person by splashing acid. It also proposes similar punishment for inflicting temporary or permanent injuries on the face, eyes, ears, breasts or the sexual organ by splashing acid.
There is also a jail term ranging from three to seven years.
Similar punishments would be handed down to those abetting acid attack.
The new law also says the proceeds from the fine go to the victims or their families. Any negligence in investigation into an incident of acid attack is also a punishable offence.
One or more special tribunals would be set up for trial in acid crimes under the law. These tribunals to be headed by district or session's judges would complete a trial within 90 days of receiving the records of the case. Hearing on a case would be held on every working day once it starts.
Revengeful husbands or men turned down carry out the vast majority of acid attacks on women. Some seek vengeance when the women rebuff their advances; in other cases, they do the crime because of domestic rows such as a dispute over payment of dowry. Of late, men and children are also becoming victims of acid attacks, and in some cases acid is replacing guns and knives as an instrument of attack.
Although these crimes are unacceptable to the public in virtually all countries, the practices persist, even where there are legal prohibitions. For too long, perpetrators have been getting away with such extremities. It is time for governments and local communities to acknowledge these actions as crimes and to act decisively to prevent the continuing murder and disfiguring of thousands of girls and women. Such crimes should be swiftly prosecuted. While the recent increase in the number of convictions is encouraging, Bangladesh still suffers from a poorly trained police force and a backlogged court system, both rife with corruption. Therefore, most perpetrators still go unpunished. If history is a lesson, a marked decrease in acid attacks will not occur until the Bangladeshi police and legal systems become more quick and effective, the prerequisite for which is probably a revolution at the heart of the Bangladeshi political system.
In a turn for the better the number of attacks in which acid was thrown at people in Bangladesh has fallen for the second year running, campaigners say.
The Acid Survivors' Foundation (ASF) says there were 322 cases recorded in 2004. More than 180 were against women, and 76 against those under 18.
The ASF's Monira Rahman said that nearly half were linked to arguments over land.
Throwing acid is now punishable by death in Bangladesh.
Earlier this year hundreds of Bangladeshi men took part in a rally in the capital, Dhaka, to denounce acid attacks and other violence against women. Cricketers, film-stars, academics, writers, civil leaders and acid attack victims were among some 5,000 people who took part in the rally.
ACID ATTACK FIGURES
2004 - 332
2003 - 410
2002 - 485
Source: Acid Survivors Foundation