Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Acid attacks in Asia

Photo of Cambodian woman, a victim of acid throwing, from wikipedia.

I just read this New York Times article by Dexter Filkins. He writes of Afghanistan:
"The men came on three motorcycles, each one carrying a driver and a man on back. They wore masks. Each of the men riding on back carried a small container filled with battery acid. The masked men circled for several minutes as the girls streamed to school. Then they moved in."
The Taliban throws acid on young girls to punish them for going to school. We should not be surprised, as this is the country that allows a husband to starve his wife if she refuses to have sex. (Which makes me question the current Afghan elections: How can you have democracy in a feudal country?)

In South Asia, acid attacks are usually by men, when the object of their desire turns down sexual advances or offer of marriage. Sometimes it is over the dowry or some other domestic quarrel.
The attacks occur in societies where women are controlled by men and often carried out when a woman decides that she will no longer be obedient. Perpetrators intend to send a message to the entire female population that will terrorize them back into submission. “At heart is the notion of woman as object, and the exercise of punishment against women who are seen to exercise autonomy or agency,” says Mridula Bandyopadhyay, author and researcher on violence against women in South Asia.
(Source: vitalvoicesonline).

Acid attacks in Cambodia are different from those in South Asia and in Afghanistan. They are usually done to women by women.

The typical acid attack is by a vengeful wive on her husband's mistress.
''I'll throw the acid now!'' [the wife of a military colonel] shouted as her friends pinned her victim to the floor. [The mistress] Miss Som Rasmey had been nursing her 7-month-old daughter and had just time enough to toss her out of the way.
So reports Seth Mydans in this 2001 NYT article Vengence destoys faces and souls in Cambodia.

"[16 year old] Tat Marina (pictured) was yanked to the ground, kicked and kneed in the chest repeatedly until she passed out. She was then doused with more than a liter of nitric acid. Soon after the attack, the district police chief identified the prime suspects as Khoun Sophal the wife of Council of Ministers Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha, and two bodyguards. In late December a municipal court judge issued an arrest warrant for Khoun Sophal."
From a 2000 Cambodia Daily report (warning: graphic photos).

Despite the warrant Khoun Sophal was never brought to justice. Relatives of her victim say Mrs. Khourn Sophal telephones periodically to insult the young woman. Mydans writes:

These are battles among the oppressed, the harsh intersection of mutual tragedies -- woman against woman. In Cambodia, power belongs almost exclusively to men. The philandering husbands are almost never the targets of attack.

''The wife does not want you to die,'' Maniline Ek, an American volunteer at a women's shelter here [in Cambodia]. ''They want you to live and suffer. It's torture. People look at your face and they say, 'Oh, she took someone else's husband.'''
But it is not so clear as "she took someone else's husband". This is a country where rich and powerful men can force young women to "go with them", as my Cambodian friends put it. There are times when the young woman gives in to the persistence of the rich, married man. Som Rasmey, the one who was nursing her baby when she was attacked, said she was imprisoned in a small house when she tried to leave the military colonel.

There is one especially powerful man in the country who is notorious for threatening to kill the woman and/or her family if she does not give in to him. The first time I was told this I found it hard to believe (I don't even know why because of course it happens, to whatever extent).

I have tried to verify this story since then, and every Cambodian I have asked have said the same thing. I don't know if it is just a well-spread rumour, but as we say in English, there is no smoke without fire. In Chinese, we say "ruo yao ren bu zhi , chu fei ji mo wei" - if you don't want others to know what you have done, the only way is not to do it.

(My Cambodian friends have told me of a former and now deceased governor of Siem Reap. A tyrant, he took whichever woman he fancied. Fathers would lock their daughters in the house. King Sihanouk who came to hear of this was furious.)

“They live neither as a human nor as a ghost"

Take a moment to consider the effects of an acid attack. It destroys not just the person's body, but also her spirit. ''I have the soul of a dead woman now. My body is alive but my soul is dead," one Cambodian victim told Mydans.

I contemplated life after an acid attack when my former manager (a woman) threatened me after I had sacked her for theft. Well, actually, I did more than that - I put her photo in the Khmer newspaper with a notice that she is no longer employed by Bloom. That was all, nothing about why she was no longer employed. I was advised by a Khmer friend to do this because she had been going around to suppliers buying materials claiming it was for Bloom and not paying up. The Cambodian woman was furious because, it was later explained to me, she had lost face. So she threatened me. Apparently I had literally to lose my face because of her imagined loss of face.

I asked Alan would he still be with me if I lost half my face to an acid attack. He said yes, but how can anyone be sure of this. How can you still think yourself loveable when you look like a monster?

There is a woman who sells books at the Russian Market in Phnom Penh who is a victim of acid attack. I talk to her whenever I am in the market visitng the Bloom shop there. She is someone I admire. She is one tough lady, going about her business, talking to tourists to get them to look at her and her wares. She does this because she has to look after her children and she chooses to work, than to beg.

Unlike the disfigured man outside Tuol Sleng Museum who asks tourists for money. I used to give him USD1 each time (he was unhappy when I gave him riels one day) because of course you feel sorry for the guy. One day I saw him zipping down Monivorng Boulevard in a USD1000+ motobike and I decided I would donate my money to other people because he is obviously doing ok. Let the tourists with their foreign earned dollars help this guy. Me, I'll stick to giving money for wells and food.

Elsewhere in Asia:

My father told me acid attacks were common in Singapore in the past (I guess the 50s and 60s?). I tried to google but only found isolated incidents, the latest in 2005, when a 41-year-old man splashed acid on his ex-wife who, thankfully, only suffered minor rashes. The man was sentenced to two years jail and six strokes of the cane. I wonder if the Singapore government managed to radically reduce the crimes through harsh punishments.

In Cambodia, though, the attacks appear to be on the rise. Human Rights group Licadho recorded 44 cases of acid attacks between 1999 and 2003, but the recent record shows 114 new cases for the past five years according to Ung Bunthan, who compiled the report and who also said acid victims "live neither as a human nor as a ghost". Read the March 2009 report which says actual figures are higher because many cases of acid attacks go unreported in Cambodia.

In June, an unidentified person in Hong Kong hurled an acid-filled bottle from a building onto pedestrians below. 24 passers-by were injured by three attacks in six months.

In July, the Indian government proposed to equate acid attack with a crime that involves causing grievous injuries using deadly weapons, an offence which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

As for the Afghan schoolgirls hurt in the Taliban attack, said one of them, Shamsia: “My parents told me to keep coming to school even if I am killed."

Take Action
If you would like to support the brave women of Afghanistan, you may like to contact NYT writer Dexter Filkins (info@dexterfilkins.net) as he has up a bank account for the girls. Any money he's received will go to helping Shamsia and her school.

And to support Cambodian acid burn victims, please visit Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity.

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