With Valentine’s Day tomorrow, my thoughts go not to chocolate and flowers, but instead to V-Day, Eve Ensler’s foundation to support stopping violence against women and girls. Since this column is never going to be about chocolate and flowers, let’s talk about how to stop violence against women and girls. And let’s go straight to one of the worst manifestations of violence against women–acid attacks.
Are you not familiar? It’s horrible. While men are sometimes the victims of acid attacks, the vast majority of the perpetrators are men, and the victims women. Specifically, 80 percent of the victims are women, and 70 percent are under the age of eighteen. Usually out of jealousy or revenge, layered with a deep-seated sense of misogyny, the perpetrator throws strong acid in the face of the victim, causing intense pain, scarring, and sometimes blindness. The acid can be so strong that it can destroy bones. The intent is not to kill the victim (and, indeed, acid attacks are rarely fatal.) Instead, it is to cause her pain and disfigurement. Common motivations for acid attacks include disputes over dowries, domestic disputes, and allegations of infidelity–all aspects of society where men hold the upper hand. In cultures where marriage is nearly required, women who have been attacked with acid are virtually unmarriable, due to their changed appearance, and sometimes blindness. Victims are usually known to their attackers–these are, by and large, personal attacks.
Acid attacks occur throughout Southeast Asia, especially in Pakistan, India, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. Part of the reason attacks are prevalent in this part of the world is because acid is so readily available for legitimate reasons such as manufacturing. Acid attacks have also occurred in parts of Africa, as well as in the developed world, but these tend to be one-off cases, rather than a pervasive problem.
I’m focusing on Bangladesh today, as this form of violence against women is especially common there. Since 1999, there have been over 3,000 recorded acid attacks in Bangladesh. (Emphasis on RECORDED. Everyone assumes the actual number of attacks is higher.) A tiny bit of background on Bangladesh: The place is CROWDED, with a population of 158 million living in 145,000 square kilometers; basically, imagine half the population of the entire United States living in an area slightly smaller than Iowa. The country is impoverished, with more than half living on less than a dollar a day, and has been politically violatile since its creation in 1971, though much of that has calmed down recently. Militant Islamism has been a growing problem (the country is about 90% Muslim and 10% Hindu.)
In terms of overall women’s rights, Bangladeshi women are well represented politically, thanks in part to a quota guaranteeing women a certain number of elected seats. There is also an increase in economic opportunities for women, partially due to the growing export garment industry. Economic opportunities, even if they’re in less-than-ideal factories, tend to give a measure of gender empowerment. A law against domestic violence was passed in October of 2010, though it’s effectiveness is up for debate. There are several laws attempting to prevent acid attacks, both by making it harder to obtain acid, and by imposing stricter penalties for acid attacks compared to other crimes. While all of that is encouraging, women are still far less educated compared to men (the female literacy rate is 41% compared to men’s 54%) and women are seen as subservient to men. (I would once again like to point out that, really, there are only a handful of places on this Earth where that ISN’T true.) Still, there are degrees of subservience, and the fact that throwing acid in a woman’s face because she refused to date you is seen as an acceptable action by hundreds of men a year makes it safe to say that there is some heavy sexism prevalent in Bangladeshi culture.
Aside from the prevalence of this issue, the other reason I’ve focused on Bangladesh when discussing acid-throwing is because Bangladesh has been internationally recognized as being the most pro-active in combating this scourge.The government, as mentioned earlier, has passed several laws on the issue, tightly regulating the sale and transport of acid as well as enacting harsher penalties for perpetrators–those accused of throwing acid, for example, are always held without bail until their trial, and the sentencing is much harsher. Since these laws were enacted in 2002, the number of recorded acid attacks had decreased by 15-20% every year, as seen in the chart on the left. It should be pointed out that in India and Cambodia, two other countries where acid attacks are all too common, the attacks have only gotten increasingly frequent in the past decade.
In addition to the government, there are some incredibly good NGOs. Every piece of research I’ve come across mentions the Acid Survivors’ Foundation, (ASF) an organization co-founded by a Bangladeshi woman (and a British man, with lots of international support, but let’s take what we can get.) Moira Rahman, co-founder and Executive Director of ASF, is not a survivor of an acid attack herself, but has worked tirelessly for 13 years supporting survivors and fighting to decrease the prevalence of acid attacks. ASF works in a variety of ways. They provide support and medical care, both physical and emotional, for victims of attacks, provide legal support and help to survivors who are trying to return to normal lives as part of society. However, it is their public awareness campaign that has garnered a great deal of attention. ASF’s “Use water-save life” campaign, which consists of media segments instructing people to immediately treat acid victims with water, has garnered significant international attention, and now, in the case of an acid attack, bystanders will immediately douse an attacked person with water, significantly decreasing the extent of the damage. ASF has also lobbied the government for stricter laws regarding acid attacks, and both pieces of legislation that the Bangladeshi government has passed are due in part to the hard work of ASF.
In addition to ASF (and indeed, ASF would not exist without the following organization) there is Naripokkho, a women’s development organization. Within Naripokkho, an activist named Nasreen Huq founded a campaign against acid violence in the mid 1990s. This campaign was the first of its kind, and it was the work of Ms. Huq that inspired the founding of ASF. Sadly, Nasreen Huq was killed in 2009, in what was either an accident or an assassination. (The worldwide trend of murdering women’s rights activists is a topic for another day.) In addition to this specific campaign, Naripokkho also works to monitor treatment of survivors of violence against women, stationing volunteers in police stations and hospitals to ensure that women receive the legal and medical attention they deserve.
There is also Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP), a women’s rights organization with it’s roots in the liberation movement of the 1970s. Founded by a poet named Sufia Kamal, BMP fights for women’s rights in every aspect of society, and this includes an end to acid attacks. Among many other things, BMP provides legal support, rehabilitation, and lobbying on behalf of women’s rights in Bangladesh–it has been referred to as THE women’s rights organization in the country. BMP also conducts research and writes publications about women’s rights in Bangladesh, an essential element of bringing attention to this issue, as well as providing concrete statistics on acid attacks. Indeed, one of the most comprehensive works on violence against women in Bangladesh is a joint effort between BMP and Naripokkho.
While I usually end these pieces with some vague “women can fix this problem!” type of statement, today I’ve got statistics. Look at the chart up there. Acid attacks in Bangladesh are HALF as prevalent now as they were a decade ago. Because of the work of these organizations, women who are attacked have access to medical, emotional, and legal support, and the country as a whole is so aware of the problem that bystanders now jump in and throw water on victims to try and prevent an acid attack from becoming as severe as it could be. That’s huge. That, right there, is proof that it is possible to create societal change. That people are aware that this is an inexcusable crime, that it is punishable by harsh law, and that it is simply culturally unacceptable, is due to the hard work of the organizations above, and others like them.
Sources: (Note: the starred links below contain images of women who have survived acid attacks. These photos can be hard to look at, so I wanted to warn you, even though I worry that warning you further stigmatizes the survivors.)
Acid Attacks in Bangladesh: A Voice for the Victims*
Acid Survivors Foundation*
Bangladesh Mahila Parishad
Baseline Report: Violence Against Women in Bangladesh
CIA World Factbook: Bangladesh
Combating Acid Violence in Bangladesh, India, and Cambodia * (Source of chart above, also, VERY sad/graphic photos here.)
Naripokkho, Non-Governmental Organization