Acid Attacks: A Brutal Crime of Passion

By<a href="">Leela Jacinto</a>

Sept. 3, 2003 -- On a scorching summer afternoon in May 1998, little Monira Begum was playing outdoors in a teeming Bangladeshi slum, when the doe-eyed 9-year-old was summoned to fetch a glass of water.

Tearing herself away from her friends, Monira dutifully complied, only to be subjected to a viciously sadistic attack that plunged her into a nightmare of pain and despair, robbed her of much of her childhood, and left its ugly imprint on her body and soul for life.

Reaching into the pocket of his kurta, or loose-fitting shirt, the man for whom she was fetching the water extricated a small bottle of corrosive acid, hurled it on the unsuspecting girl and attempted to flee as the caustic liquid started to eat into her flesh.

In the pandemonium of the next few moments, as the little girl screeched and her parents yelled for help and neighbors nabbed the attacker, the acid proceeded to devour Monira's left ear and eye, fuse one side of her mouth, scorch skin tissue and nerve cells on her face, neck and chest, and left her horribly maimed for life.

Five years after that attack in the industrial town of Tongi, about 20 miles north of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, Monira finally received justice earlier this year.

In a landmark ruling, a court in the Bangladeshi town of Gazipur sentenced her attacker, Swapan Gazi, to death by hanging under tough new laws aimed at curbing a recent rise in acid attacks on women.

"I am very happy with the verdict," Monira says during a phone interview with from Dhaka. "People who do such things must be punished."

Jilted Lovers, Spurned Spouses

It's hard to comprehend the level of brutality and sadism that could lead people to do such things, but experts working with acid attack victims say the common reasons include spurned sexual advances, rejected marriage proposals, inadequate dowries as well as land or family disputes.

In Monira's case, her attacker was the man her impoverished parents had married her off to at the age of 8 on condition that she live with her parents until she turned 16.

Child marriage — or the marriage of girls under 18 and men under 21 — is illegal in Bangladesh, but is commonly practiced in rural and poor urban communities, where parents often lie about their daughters' ages or birth certificates simply don't exist.

Under entrenched, culturally sanctioned customs, informal marriage agreements often stipulate that the couple will not start conjugal life until the girl comes of age.

But Gazi wanted to take Monira home soon after the wedding, a move her father, a rickshaw puller, firmly opposed.

Trouble was brewing, the family knew, but little did they know that Gazi would resort to such a crime, the likes of which, activists say, have been increasing alarmingly in recent years.

‘Instead of a Gun’

Cases of acid attacks against women have been recorded in countries as diverse as Cambodia, Nigeria, China, Argentina, Afghanistan and Malaysia. But by all accounts, the highest numbers of acid attacks occur in the South Asian subcontinent, especially Bangladesh and Pakistan.

In 2001, the Dhaka-based Acid Survivor's Foundation recorded 340 new attacks, a 55 percent increase on the previous year. Experts warn that the actual figures could be higher as cases in remote regions go unreported.

While estimates of acid attacks in Pakistan — especially in the remote tribal provinces of Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province — are hard to arrive at, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recorded 56 cases in 2002. By June this year, the Islamabad-based organization recorded 32 acid attacks across the country.

The trend has spilled over into neighboring India, with dozens of cases reported in Indian-controlled Kashmir over the past few years. The victims were primarily unveiled women flouting demands of various Islamic militant groups in the troubled region for Muslim women to adhere to strict Islamic dress codes.

Experts such as Salma Ali, executive director of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, a Dhaka-based organization that provides legal aid to victims, are at a loss to explain the rise in acid attacks.

"It's a new phenomenon that we've been seeing over the past 20 years," says Ali. "It's hard to explain why. It's like instead of a gun, acid has become a new type of weapon."

But unlike a gun, a small vial of acid is intended not so much to kill the victim, as a sadistic means to make her life a living hell.

"It's a particularly cowardly and heinous form of violence against women because you see it on her face," says Ali. "It means you have to live with it for the rest of your life, even after medical treatment."

‘Copycat Phenomenon’

In what is sometimes called a "copycat phenomenon," activists say the fact that the crime is often seen to go unpunished, coupled with the easy availability of caustic acids, account for the increasing attacks.

It's a situation Bangladesh has attempted to change with the passage of two stringent laws last year. The Acid Crime Prevention Act stipulates the death sentence as a maximum penalty for an assault.

And in an attempt to control the availability of commercially used acid, including battery and other sulfuric acids, the Acid Control Act mandates licenses for the sale and purchase of acids, with offenders facing a maximum 15-year imprisonment as well as fines.

But while Bangladesh has made some progress on the legal front, experts say the situation is deteriorating in violence-ridden Pakistan, where studies say about 70 percent to 90 percent of women suffer from some sort of domestic violence.

While acid attacks in Bangladesh are often attributed to spurned sexual advances and proposals, according to Carin Benninger-Budel of the Geneva-based World Organization Against Torture, acid attacks in Pakistan tend to occur within the family, thereby reducing the chances of such cases being reported.

Earlier this month, the provincial assembly of the eastern province of the Punjab — Pakistan's most populated state — passed a resolution declaring acid attacks on women to be equivalent to attempted murder.

But while welcoming the move, experts have noted that the country is still a long way from passing a national law criminalizing acid attacks. Pakistan has no specific legislation against domestic violence and rights groups say police are reluctant to get involved in "family matters."

A Culture of Corruption and Impunity

Certainly in Pakistan, rights groups say widespread corruption combined with a culture of impunity sees several acid attacks go unpunished.

Two years after she confronted her influential ex-husband's family about a high-profile acid attack, Tehmina Durrani is pessimistic about the prospects for acid victims to receive justice under the Pakistani system.

The author of the Pakistani best seller My Feudal Lord, Durrani was forced to confront the issue when Fakhra Yunas, a 21-year-old former dancing girl, arrived at the doorstep of her Lahore home two years ago.

Yunas had suffered a major acid attack at the hands of her husband, Bilal Khar, the son of Mustafa Khar, one of Pakistan's most influential feudal landlords and politicians. Mustafa Khar is Durrani's ex-husband, and Bilal Khar was her stepson.

A victim of an abusive marriage, Durrani's 1994 book about her marriage to Khar created a storm across the nation and put her in the international spotlight. But while Durrani succeeded in sending young Yunas to Italy for treatment, she was unable to get justice served.

Only months after Durrani managed to bring the case into the national headlines, attention slowly began to peter out and today, Bilal Khar is a free man after serving only four months in prison, she says.

"Unless there's serious punishment, people are not going to stop," says Durrani during a phone interview with from the Pakistani city of Lahore. "For me, this is a political issue. We have to think of acid as a weapon and we've got to face this issue. Just because it does not happen to the president's daughter, because it's a 'poor people's' issue,' does not mean it's a small issue."

‘It’s There on Their Faces’

For her part, Durrani's experience trying to get medical care for Yunas from abroad has alerted her to the need for reconstructive treatment and plastic surgery in Pakistan.

In an unusual but innovative move, Durrani has convinced her friend Musarrat Misbah, the owner of Depliex, a leading Pakistani chain of beauty salons, to team up with Smile Again, an Italian charity, to provide reconstructive plastic surgery for acid and burn attack victims.

"I managed to get Fakhra to Italy, but you can't possibly send everyone abroad, it's too expensive and we have to be able to deal with our own problems," says Durrani.

In the months Yunas lived in Durrani's Lahore home, the writer got a keen understanding of the physical and psychological problems confronting acid victims.

"Trauma? Trauma?" she sputters as she struggles to find the words. "How can you even begin to describe the psychological impact of an acid attack on a girl? It's there on their faces, they have no faces. We get so upset with a tiny blotch on our face ... during the time Fakhra was living with us, we stopped doing makeup. It was so traumatic just to face her when we were putting on makeup."

Good Girls, Bad Girls

Nearly five years after she underwent extensive surgery in Spain to reconstruct her eyelids, nose, neck, lips and an ear, Monira still has to make the journey to Dhaka every few months for medical checkups and treatment.

While the surgery many not have restored her lost beauty, it has succeeded in ameliorating some of the damage to the left side of her face and neck and today, she is a seventh-grade student at a local school.

But it has not spared her from the small but painful indignities of everyday life.

"People always ask me what happened," she says. "And many people say this happens to girls who are not good. They say this happens to girls who are bad. I feel depressed when I hear this, even though I know it's not my fault and I try not to let it get me down."

Her best days, she explains, are those spent in a Dhaka shelter with other acid victims when she comes in for medical treatment. "When I stay with the other girls, I'm happy because we're all the same and nobody asks questions or says I'm a bad girl and so I'm happy."

An otherwise bright, talkative schoolgirl, Monira gets noticeably quiet when asked about the attack that changed her life. "It was very painful … khoop jaltai [intense burning], khoop jaltai," she repeats in her native Bengali. "I can remember screaming and screaming until they took me to hospital. There, the doctors gave me an injection and it became a little bit cool."

The experience has left an indelible mark on the spunky daughter of a poor rickshaw puller. "When I grow up, I want to become a doctor so I can help other girls like me," she says. "One day, I will be a doctor."

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