Acid throwing, also called an acid attack, a vitriol attack or vitriolage, is a form of violent assault defined as the act of throwing acid or a similarly corrosive substance onto the body of another "with the intention to disfigure, maim, torture, or kill." Perpetrators of these attacks throw acid at their victims, usually at their faces, burning them, and damaging skin tissue, often exposing and sometimes dissolving the bones. The most common types of acid used in these attacks are sulfuric and nitric acid. Hydrochloric acid is sometimes used, but is much less damaging. The long term consequences of these attacks may include blindness, as well as permanent scarring of the face and body, along with far-reaching social, psychological, and economic difficulties.
Today, acid attacks are reported in many parts of the world. Since the 1990s, Bangladesh has been reporting the highest number of attacks and highest incidence rates for women, with 3,512 Bangladeshi people acid attacked between 1999 and 2013. Although acid attacks occur all over the world, including in Europe and the United States, this type of violence is mainly concentrated in South Asia.
- 1 Health effects
- 2 Prevention
- 3 Treatment
- 4 Motivation of perpetrators
- 5 Epidemiology
- 6 History
- 7 Legislation
- 8 Portrayals in media
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
The most notable effect of an acid attack is the lifelong bodily disfigurement. According to the Acid Survivors Foundation in Pakistan, there is a high survival rate amongst victims of acid attacks. Consequently, the victim is faced with physical challenges, which require long-term surgical treatment, as well as psychological challenges, which require in-depth intervention from psychologists and counselors at each stage of physical recovery. These far-reaching effects on their lives impact their psychological, social and economic viability in communities.
The medical effects of acid attacks are extensive. As a majority of acid attacks are aimed at the face, several articles thoroughly reviewed the medical implications for these victims. The severity of the damage depends on the concentration of the acid and the time before the acid is thoroughly washed off with water or neutralized with a neutralizing agent. The acid can rapidly eat away skin, the layer of fat beneath the skin, and in some cases even the underlying bone. Eyelids and lips may be completely destroyed, the nose and ears severely damaged. Though not exhaustive, their findings included:
- The skull is partly destroyed/deformed and hair lost.
- Ear cartilage is usually partly or totally destroyed; deafness may occur.
- Eyelids may be burned off or deformed, leaving the eyes extremely dry and prone to blindness. Acid directly in the eye also damages sight, sometimes causing blindness in both eyes.
- The nose can become shrunken and deformed; the nostrils may close off completely due to destroyed cartilage.
- The mouth becomes shrunken and narrow, and it may lose its full range of motion. Sometimes, the lips may be partly or totally destroyed, exposing the teeth. Eating and speaking can become difficult.
- Scars can run down from the chin to neck area, shrinking the chin and extremely limiting range of motion in the neck.
- Inhalation of acid vapors usually creates respiratory problems, exacerbated restricted airway pathways (the esophagus and nostrils) in acid patients.
Acid assault survivors face many mental health issues upon recovery. One study showed that when compared to published Western norms for psychological well-being, non-Caucasian acid attack victims reported higher levels of anxiety, depression, and scored higher on the Derriford appearance scale, which measures psychological distress due to one's concern for their appearance. Additionally, the women reported lowered self-esteem according to the Rosenberg scale and increased self-consciousness, both in general and in the social sphere.
In some countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, acid attack victims are psychologically persecuted after the acid attack. The media overwhelmingly avoids reporting acid attack related violence; if covered, the description of the attack is spartan, and often implies that the act was inevitable or even justified.
In addition to medical and psychological effects, many social implications exist for acid survivors, especially women. For example, such attacks usually leave victims handicapped in some way, rendering them dependent on either their spouse or family for everyday activities, such as eating and running errands. These dependencies are increased by the fact that many acid survivors are not able to find suitable work, due to impaired vision and physical handicap. This negatively impacts their economic viability, causing hardships on the families/spouses that care for them. As a result, divorce rates are high, with abandonment by husbands found in 25 percent of acid assault cases in Uganda (compared to only 3 percent of wives abandoning their disfigured husbands). Moreover, acid survivors who are single when attacked almost certainly become ostracized from society, effectively ruining marriage prospects.
Research has prompted many solutions to the increasing incidence of acid attacks in the world. Many countries look to Bangladesh, whose rates of attack have been decreasing, as a model, following their lead in many legislative reforms. However, several reports highlighted the need for an increased, legal role of NGOs to offer rehabilitation support to acid survivors. Additionally, nearly all research stressed the need for stricter regulation of acid sales to combat this social issue.
Role of NGOs
Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been formed in the areas with the highest occurrence of acid attacks to combat such attacks. Bangladesh has its Acid Survivors Foundation, which offers acid victims legal, medical, counseling, and monetary assistance in rebuilding their lives. Similar institutions exist in Uganda, which has its own Acid Survivors Foundation, and in Cambodia which uses the help of Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity. NGOs provide rehabilitation services for survivors while acting as advocates for social reform, hoping to increase support and awareness for acid assault.
In Bangladesh, the Acid Survivors Foundation, Nairpokkho, Action Aid, and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee's Community Empowerment & Strengthening Local Institutions Programme assist survivors. The Depilex Smileagain Foundation and The Acid Survivors Foundation in Pakistan operates in Islamabad, offering medical, psychological and rehabilitation support. The Acid Survivors Foundation in Uganda operates in Kampala and provides counseling and rehabilitation treatment to victims, as well as their families. The LICADHO, the Association of the Blind in Cambodia, and the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity assist survivors of acid attacks. The Acid Survivors Foundation India operates from different centres with national headquarters at Kolkata and chapters at Delhi and Mumbai.
Acid Survivors Trust International (UK registered charity no. 1079290) provides specialist support to its sister organizations in Africa and Asia. Acid Survivors Trust International is the only international organisation whose sole purpose is to end acid violence. The organisation was founded in 2002 and now works with a network of six Acid Survivors Foundations in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Uganda that it has helped to form. Acid Survivors Trust International has helped to provide medical expertise and training to partners, raised valuable funds to support survivors of acid attacks and helped change laws. A key role for ASTI is to raise awareness of acid violence to an international audience so that increased pressure can be applied to governments to introduce stricter controls on the sale and purchase of acid.
Indian acid attack survivor Shirin Juwaley founded the Palash Foundation to help other survivors with psycho-social rehabilitation. She also spearheads research into social norms of beauty and speaks publicly as an advocate for the empowerment of all victims of disfigurement and discrimination. In 2011, the principal of an Indian college refused to have Juwaley speak at her school for fear that Juwaley's story of being attacked by her husband would make students "become scared of marriage".
Regulation of acid sales
A positive correlation has been observed between acid attacks and ease of acid purchase. Sulfuric, nitric, and hydrochloric acid are most commonly used and are all cheap and readily available in many instances. For example, often acid throwers can purchase a liter of concentrated sulfuric acid at motorbike mechanic shops for about 40 cents. Nitric acid costs around $1.50 per liter and is available for purchase at gold or jewelry shops, as polishers generally use it to purify gold and metals. Hydrochloric acid is also used for polishing jewelry, as well as for making soy sauce, cosmetics, and traditional medicine/amphetamine drugs.
Due to such ease of access, many organizations call for a stricter regulation on the acid economy. Specific actions include required licenses for all acid traders, a ban on concentrated acid in certain areas, and enhanced system of monitoring for acid sales, such as the need to document all transactions involving acid. However, some scholars have warned that such stringent regulation may result in black market trading of acid, which law enforcements must keep in mind.
Treatment for burn victims remains inadequate in many developing nations where incidence is high. Medical underfunding has resulted in very few burn centers available for victims in countries such as Uganda, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. For example, Uganda has one specialized burn center in the entire nation which opened in 2003, likewise Cambodia has only one burn facility for victims, and scholars estimate that only 30% of the Bangladeshi community has access to health care.
In addition to inadequate medical capabilities, many acid assault victims fail to report to the police due to a lack of trust in the force, a sense of hopelessness due to the attackers' impunity, and a fear of male brutality in dealing with their cases. Most of the female victims suffer more because of police apathy in dealing with cases of harassment as safety issues as victims refused to register a police case despite being attacked thrice before meriting police aid after an acid attack.
These problems are exacerbated by a lack of knowledge of how to treat burns: many victims applied oil to the acid, rather than rinsing thoroughly and completely with water to neutralize the acid. Such home remedies only serve to increase the severity of damage, as they do not counteract the acidity.
Motivation of perpetrators
Personal conflicts in intimate relations and sexual rejection
In parts of South Asia, acid attacks often occur as revenge against a woman who rejects a proposal of marriage or a sexual advance. Such attacks are common in societies where there is a high level of gender inequality and women occupy a subordinate position in relation to men.
Conflicts over land and property
Gang violence and rivalry
Acid attacks related to conflicts between criminal gangs occur in many places, ranging from the United Kingdom to Indonesia. The intention of the attacker is often to humiliate rather than to kill the victim. In the UK such attacks are believed to be underreported, and as a result many of them do not show up in official statistics.
Socially, politically and religiously motivated
Attacks against individuals due to their social or political activities, or due to their religious beliefs also occur. These attacks may be targeted against a specific individual, due to their activities, or may be perpetrated against random persons merely because they are part of a social group or community. In Pakistan, female students have had acid thrown in their faces as a punishment for attending school. Acid attacks due to religious conflicts have been reported in Tanzania.
In Europe, Konstantina Kouneva, currently a member of the European Parliament, had acid thrown on her in 2008, in what was described as "the most severe assault on a trade unionist in Greece for 50 years."
According to researchers and activists, countries typically associated with acid assault include Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, China, United Kingdom, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Ethiopia. However, acid attacks have been reported in countries around the world, including:
Additionally, anecdotal evidence for acid attacks exists in other regions of the world such as South America, Central and North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. But South Asian countries maintain the highest incidence of acid attacks.
An accurate estimate of the gender ratio of victims and perpetrators is difficult to establish because many acid attacks are not reported or recorded by authorities. According to a 2010 study in The Lancet, there are "no reliable statistics" on the prevalence of acid attacks in Pakistan.
A 2007 literature review analyzed 24 studies in 13 countries over the past 40 years, covering 771 cases. In the cases studied, men were more frequently victims in every country, with the exception of Bangladesh and Taiwan, with a male/female ratio ranging from 0.15:1 in Bangladesh to 6.14:1 in the UK. However, according to the London-based charity Acid Survivors Trust International 60 percent of acid attacks are on women, and acid assaults are grossly under-estimated. In some regions, assaults perpetrated on female victims by males are often driven by the mentality "If I can't have you, no one shall.""
In Bangladesh, throwing acid has been labeled as a "gender crime", as there is a dominance of female victims who are assaulted by males, for the reason of refusing to marry, or refusing sexual advances from male perpetrators In Jamaica, women throwing acid on other women in relation to fights over male partners is a common cause. In the UK, the majority of victims are men, and many of these attacks are related to gang violence.
Another factor that puts victims at increased risk for an acid assault is their socioeconomic status, as those living in poverty are more likely to be attacked. As of 2013[update], the three nations with the most noted incidence of acid attacks - Bangladesh, India, and Cambodia - were ranked 75th, 101st, and 104th, respectively, out of 136 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index, a scale that measures equality in opportunities between men and women in nations.
In South Asia, acid attacks have been used as a form of revenge for refusal of sexual advances, proposals of marriage and demands for dowry. Scholars Taru Bahl and M.H. Syed say that land disputes are another leading cause.
In Bangladesh, such attacks are relatively common. Bangladesh has the highest reported incidence of acid assault in the world. According to the Acid Survivors Foundation in Bangladesh, the country has reported 3000 acid attack victims since 1999, peaking at 262 victims for the year of 2002. Rates have been steadily decreasing by 15% to 20% since 2002, with the amount of acid attack victims reported at 91 in Bangladesh as recently as 2011. Bangladesh acid attacks shows the most gendered discrimination, with one study citing a male to female victim ratio of 0.15:1 and another reporting that 82% of acid attack survivors in Bangladesh are women. Younger women were especially prone to attack, with a recent study reporting that 60% of acid assault survivors are between the ages of 10 and 19. According to Mridula Bandyopadhyay and Mahmuda Rahman Khan, it is a form of violence primarily targeted at women. They describe it as a relatively recent form of violence, with the earliest record in Bangladesh from 1983.
Acid attacks are often referred to as a "crime of passion", fueled by jealousy and revenge. Actual cases though, show that they are usually the result of rage at a woman who rebuffs the advances of a male. For the country of Bangladesh, such passion is often rooted in marriage and relationships. One study showed that refusal of marriage proposals accounted for 55% of acid assaults, with abuse from a husband or other family member (18%), property disputes (11%) and refusal of sexual or romantic advances (2%) as other leading causes. Additionally, the use of acid attacks in dowry arguments has been reported in Bangladesh, with 15% of cases studied by the Acid Survivors Foundation citing dowry disputes as the motive. The chemical agents most commonly used to commit these attacks are hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid.
Acid attacks in India, like Bangladesh, have a gendered aspect to them: analyses of news reports revealed at least 72% of reported attacks included at least one female victim. However, unlike Bangladesh, India's incidence rate of chemical assault has been increasing in the past decade, with a high 27 reported cases in 2010. Altogether, from January 2002 to October 2010, 153 cases of acid assault were reported in Indian print media while 174 judicial cases were reported for the year of 2000. However, scholars think that this is an underestimation, given that not all attacks are reported in the news, nor do all victims report the crime to officials.
Motivation for acid attacks in India mirrors those in Bangladesh: 34% of the analyzed print media in India cited rejection of marriage or refusal by women of sexual advances as the cause of the attack and dowry disagreements have been shown to spur acid attacks. Land, property, and/or business disputes accounted for 20% of acid assaults in India from 2002 to 2010. Illustrative cases of acid attack include Sonali Mukherjee's case of 2003 in Jharkhand for protesting sexual harassment, and Muhammad Razaq's case in Jammu & Kashmir in 2014 for an acid attack on his wife for not bringing enough dowry.
According to New York Times reporter Nicholas D. Kristof, acid attacks are at an all-time high in Pakistan and increasing every year. The Pakistani attacks he describes are typically the work of husbands against their wives who have "dishonored them." Statistics compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) show that 46 acid attacks occurred in Pakistan during 2004 and decreased with only 33 acid assaults reported for 2007. According to a New York Times article, in 2011 there were 150 acid attacks in Pakistan, up from 65 in 2010. However, estimates by the Human Rights Watch and the HRCP cite the number of acid attack victims to be as high 400-750 per year. Motivation behind acid assaults range from marriage proposal rejections to religious fundamentalism.
Recent studies on acid attacks in Cambodia found the victims were almost equally likely to be men or women (48.4% men, 51.6% women). As with India, rates of acid attacks in Cambodia have generally increased in the past decades, with a high rate of 40 cases reported for 2000 that started the increasing trend. According to the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, 216 acid attacks were reported from 1985 to 2009, with 236 reported victims. Jealousy and/or hate is the biggest motivator for acid attacks in Cambodia, as 28% of attacks reported those emotions as the cause. Such assaults were not only perpetrated by men—some reports suggest women attack other women occur more frequently than men do. Such incidents usually occur between a husband's wife and mistress to attain power and socioeconomic security.
A particularly high-profile case of this nature was the attack on Cambodian teenager Tat Marina in 1999, allegedly carried out by the jealous wife of a government official (the incident prompted a rash of copycat crimes that year, raising the number from 7 in 1998 to 40 in 1999). One third of the victims are bystanders. In Cambodia, there is only one support center that is aiming to help acid attack survivors. There they can receive medical and legal support.
Acid attacks occur throughout the Middle East, though comprehensive statistics on these incidences are not readily available. Internet articles cite immodesty as a motivator for such attacks, with the legs and/or face of women burnt due to nontraditional dress.
In 2006 a group in Gaza calling itself "Just Swords of Islam" claimed to have thrown acid at a young woman who dressed "immodestly" and warned other women to wear the hijab, a traditional head scarf. Furthermore, acid assault has been documented in Saudi Arabia, with some research indicating that children have been recruited to carry out the attacks.
According to Afshin Molavi, in the early years of the revolution and following the mandating of the covering of hair by women in Iran, some women were threatened with acid attacks by Islamic vigilantes for failing to wear hijab.
Recently, acid assault in Iran has been met with increased sanctions. The Sharia code of qisas, or equivalence justice, required a caught perpetrator of acid violence to pay a fine and be blinded with acid in both eyes. The victim, Ameneh Bahrami, sentenced her attacker to be blinded in 2008. However, as of July 31, 2011, she pardoned her attacker, thereby absolving Majid Movahedi of his crime and halting the retributive justice of Qisas.
In October 2014, a series of acid attack on women occurred in the city of Isfahan, resulting in demonstrations and arrests of journalists who had covered the attacks. The attacks were thought by many Iranians to be the work of conservative Islamist vigilantes, but the Iranian government denies this.
Such attacks or threats against women who failed to wear hijab, dress "modestly" or otherwise threaten traditional norms have been reported in Afghanistan. In November 2008, extremists subjected girls to acid attacks for attending school.
High incidence of acid assaults have been reported in some African countries, including Nigeria, Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Africa. Unlike occurrences in South Asia, acid attacks in these countries show less gender discrimination. In Uganda, 57% of acid assault victims were female and 43% were male. A study focusing on chemical burns in Nigeria revealed a reversal in findings—60% of the acid attack patients were male while 40% were female. In both nations younger individuals were more likely to suffer from an acid attack: The average age in the Nigeria study was 20.6 years while Ugandan analysis shows 59% of survivors were 19–34 years of age.
Motivation for acid assault in these African countries is similar to that of Cambodia. "Relationship conflicts" caused 35% of acid attacks in Uganda from 1985-2011, followed by property conflicts at 8% and business conflicts at 5%. Disaggregated data was not available in the Nigeria study, but they reported that 71% of acid assaults resulted from an argument with either a jilted lover, family member, or business partner. As with the other nations, researchers believe these statistics to be under-representative of the actual scope and magnitude of acid attacks in African nations.
In August 2013, two Jewish women volunteer teachers—Katie Gee and Kirstie Trup from the UK—were injured by an acid attack by men on a moped near Stone Town.
Though comprehensive statistics on acid attacks in South America are sparse, a recent study investigating acid assault in Bogota, Colombia provides some insight for this region. According to the article, the first identified survivor of acid violence in Bogota was attacked 15 years ago. Since then reported cases have been increasing with time. The study also cited the Colombian Forensics Institute, which reported that 56 women complained of aggression by acid in 2010, 46 in 2011, and 16 during the first trimester of 2012. The average age of survivors was about 23 years old, but ranged from 13 to 41 years.
The study reported a male:female victim ratio of 1:30 for acid assault in Bogota, Colombia, although recent reports show the ratio is closer to 1:1. Reasons behind these attacks usually stemmed from poor interpersonal relationships and domestic intolerance toward women. Moreover, female victims usually came from low socioeconomic classes and had low education. The authors state that the prevalence of acid attacks in other areas of South America remains unknown due to significant underreporting.
North America and Europe
Acid attacks in the United States, the United Kingdom and continental Europe were common during the 19th century, but have since declined as the judicial system became more developed. Recently there has been a surge in high-profile, public acid attacks in Bulgaria and Greece. Additionally, the government of New Brunswick, Canada, has identified acid burns as a common form of violence against women.
The number of assaults involving acid throwing and other corrosive substances has tripled in six years in England, official records show. NHS hospital figures record 144 assaults in 2011/12 involving corrosive substances, which can include petrol, bleach and kerosene. Six years earlier, 56 such episodes were noted. One British expert says she believes many of the cases involving acid are linked to communities of immigrants from Asia, with women attacked by their husbands or punished for refusing forced marriages.
Acid has been used in metallurgy since prehistoric times and for etching since the Middle Ages and antiquity. The rhetorical and theatrical term "La Vitrioleuse" was coined in France after a "wave of vitriolage" occurred according to the popular press, where in 1879, 16 cases of vitriol attacks were widely reported as crimes of passion, perpetrated predominantly by women against other women. Much was made of the idea that women, no matter how few, had employed violence as means to an end. On October 17, 1915 acid was fatally thrown on Prince Leopold Clement of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, heir to the House of Koháry, by his distraught mistress, Camilla Rybicka, who then killed herself. Sensationalizing such incidents made for lucrative newspaper sales.
The use of acid as a weapon began to rise in many developing nations, specifically those in South Asia. The first recorded acid attacks in South Asia occurred in Bangladesh in 1967, India in 1982, and Cambodia in 1993. Since then, research has witnessed an increase in the amount and severity of acid attacks in the region. However, this can be traced to significant underreporting in the 1980s and 1990s, along with a general lack of research for this phenomenon during that period.
Many countries have begun pushing for legislation addressing acid attacks, and a few have recently employed new laws against this crime. Under the Qisas law of Pakistan, the perpetrator may suffer the same fate as the victim, and may be punished by having drops of acid placed in his/her eyes. This law is not binding and is rarely enforced according to a New York Times report. In Pakistan, the Lower House of Parliament unanimously passed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill On May 10, 2011. As punishment, according to the bill individuals held responsible for acid attacks face harsh fines and life in prison. However, the country with the most specific, effective legislation against acid attacks is Bangladesh, and such legal action has resulted in a steady 20-30% decrease in acid violence for the past few years. In 2013, India introduced amendment to the Indian Penal Code through the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, making acid attacks a specific offence with a punishment of imprisonment not less than 10 years and which can extend to life imprisonment and with fine.
Legislation in India
India's top court has ruled that authorities must regulate the sale of acid. The Supreme Court's ruling on July 16, 2013 comes after an incident in which four sisters suffered severe burns after being attacked with acid by two men on a motorbike. Acid which is designed to clean rusted tools is often used in the attacks can be bought across the counter. But the judges said the buyer of such acids should in future have to provide a photo identity card to any retailer when they make a purchase. The retailers must register the name and address of the buyer. In 2013, section 326 A of Indian Penal Code was enacted by the Indian Parliament to ensure enhanced punishment for acid throwing.
Legislation in Bangladesh
In 2002, Bangladesh introduced the death penalty for acid attacks and laws strictly controlling the sale, use, storage, and international trade of acids. The acids are used in traditional trades carving marble nameplates, conch bangles, goldsmiths, tanneries, and other industries, which have largely failed to comply with the legislation. Salma Ali of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association derided these laws as ineffective. The names of these laws are the Acid Crime Control Act (ACCA) and the Acid Control Act (ACA), respectively.
The ACCA directly impacts the criminal aspect of acid attacks, and allows for the death penalty or a level of punishment corresponding to the area of the body affected. If the attack results in a loss of hearing or sight or damages the victim's face, breasts, or sex organs then the perpetrator faces either the death penalty or life sentencing. If any other part of the body is maimed, then the criminal faces 7–14 years of imprisonment in addition to a fine of US$700. Additionally, throwing or attempting to throw acid without causing any physical or mental harm is punishable by this law and could result in a prison term of 3–7 years along with a US$700 fine. Furthermore, conspirators that aid in such attacks assume the same liability as those actually committing the crime.
The ACA regulates the sale, usage, and storing of acid in Bangladesh through the creation of the National Acid Control Council (NACC). The law requires that the NACC implement policies regarding the trade, misuse, and disposal of acid, while also undertaking initiatives that raise awareness about the dangers of acid and improve victim treatment and rehabilitation. The ACA calls for district-level committees responsible for enacting local measures that enforce and further regulate acid use in towns and cities.
Portrayals in media
- Saving Face – A 2012 documentary film by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and Daniel Junge that follows Pakistani/British plastic surgeon Dr. Mohammad Jawad to his native Pakistan to aid women who were victims of acid attacks, and examines the Pakistani parliament's exercise in banning the act of acid burning. The film won the 2012 Academy Award for best Documentary Short.
- Acid attack victims
- Domestic violence
- Domestic violence in India
- Domestic violence in Pakistan
- Nasreen Pervin Huq
- Saving Face (documentary)
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