Acid attacks happen across the world and it affects women disproportionally. Although it is also unacceptable when acid violence occurs against men, acid violence is a form of violence that has a disproportionate impact on women. It reflects and perpetuates discrimination of women and girls in society, as such it is prohibited by international law. However, all too often it’s a crime that goes unreported and unpunished: survivors of acid attacks live in fear of reprisals for reporting the attack.
A MESSAGE FROM JAF SHAH, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
Per capita the UK has one of the highest rates of recorded acid attacks in the world. In 2016, in London alone, corrosive substances were used in 454 crimes, compared to 261 in 2015, according to London Police figures. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the attacks are part of gang related activities and that acid is becoming the weapon of choice. The UK does not have tight controls on the sale of acid and nor does it have legislation specific to acid attacks. ASTI has campaigned for tighter controls on the sale of acid and a review of sentencing. In the UK, unlike many countries, men make up the majority of victims. Men also tend to be the perpetrators.
India had around 300 recorded attacks in 2016. Research indicates that the majority of victims are women and girls and unlike Bangladesh (where most attacks occur in the home) attacks often occur in public places such as roads, schools, colleges. The real number of attacks is likely to exceed 1000 attacks a year. In recent years the Indian government have taken steps to address the problem through the passing of new acid specific legislation particularly around the control and sale of acid and compensation for survivors. However implementation of these laws varies in consistency from state to state. Unfortunately evidence suggests that key aspects of the laws are not being effectively enforced; acid remains easy to obtain and many survivors have trouble accessing compensation, medical care and justice. ASTI research reveals that the total time taken for litigation around a case to end is between 5 – 10 years on average and in most cases (76%) the attack is committed by a person who is known to the victim.
Colombia has approximately 100 recorded attacks a year and with a population of around 48 million this makes attacks in Colombia one of the highest per capita. Perpetrators are overwhelmingly men, while victims are mostly women. In recent years Colombian legislators have passed laws to control sale of acid and increase punishment of perpetrators, anyone using any kind of “chemical agent” to physically harm another person will receive a minimum sentence of 12 years imprisonment. If the victim is permanently disfigured, the sentence will be up to 50 years. However, this requires investment in policing resources to ensure cases reach court. Much work is still to be done to improve medical support due to very few specialist burns units in Colombia.
It is estimated that up to 400 women fall victim to acid attacks perpetrated by their husbands or in-laws each year, but due to underreporting, only 1,500 cases have been documented over the past 10 years. Attacks are often an escalation of domestic violence and rooted in gender equality, manifesting as land disputes, suspicions of infidelity, family and ‘honour’ disputes and rivalry. Acid throwing was made a crime against the state with an amendment to the Pakistani Penal Code in 2011 and can carry punishments of lifetime imprisonment. But the law is rarely enforced, particularly in rural areas, conviction rates are extremely low and acid attacks continue. Much more needs to be done to address the challenges of investigation, fair trial, free medical and rehabilitation services, funding and monitoring mechanism. The Acid and Burns Crime Bill 2012 is a comprehensive legal mechanism that will complement the criminalisation of acid throwing. A 50 per cent decline has been witnessed in acid crime cases across Pakistan since 2014 (153 reported attacks in that year). However the prevalence of acid attacks was stabilised in 2015 and 2016, according to the report which has been compiled by ASTI’s local partner Acid Survivors Foundation Pakistan. According to the data, 85 per cent of the acid attacks occurred in Punjab, mostly in southern Punjab followed by Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkwa, Balochsitan, Islamabad Capital Territory and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
In Nepal, acid throwing is not very common, but there are a high number of burns cases caused by kerosene. The vast majority of victims are women. In line with the general absence of statistical data on violence against women and domestic violence in Nepal there is no systematic data on acid and burns violence. However, a recent maternal mortality and morbidity study highlights that suicide is the leading cause of death among women aged 15-49 (16%), compared with 10% in 1998 when it was the third most common cause. Of the 16% of deaths that are suicide, 50% are the result of burns violence through self-immolation (using kerosene), mostly after domestic violence. Harmful traditional practices such as the dowry system are also thought to be contributing factors. There is no specific legislation in place to outlaw acid and burns violence. Other challenges in Nepal include the lack of reliable data about the prevalence and incidence of acid and burns attacks, the limited number of specialised burns facilities, especially outside Kathmandu, the need for improved long-term care and counselling for survivors of acid and burns violence and the lack of awareness in communities about how to prevent and treat burns generally and acid and burns violence more specifically.
Attacks in Bangladesh peaked at around 400 in 2002. Almost 70% of victims are women and girls. A study of 90 victims of attacks in Bangladesh found that 80% of the attacks occurred in the victims’ homes . Perpetrators are almost always men. Research on socio-economic status of victims (based on a reviewing 90 victims) found that victims are more likely to be from lower socio-economic classes. However, acid attacks also occur against members of all classes. After much campaigning and media pressure from many organisations including Acid Survivors Foundation, with the support of ASTI, the Bangladesh Government introduced legislation in 2002 which includes control of sale, use and storage of acid. Attacks have now declined to under 100 per year.
Funded by United Nations Trust Foundation (UNTF) ASTI in partnership with Acid Survivors Foundation Uganda (ASFU) produced a study which revealed that there were 382 victims of acid violence in Uganda between 1985 and May 2011. Of the 382 cases, the majority (58%) were recorded in the Central region of Uganda. However, as ASFU is based in this region (in Kampala), it is more likely to be aware of survivors there. In more remote areas, there may be significant under-reporting. In any case, experience in other countries suggests that acid violence is often an under-reported form of violence. Other evidence suggests that this crime is pervasive in Uganda. The community survey for the UNTF project, for instance, showed that about three in four people were aware of acid and burn violence, and one in five knew a victim.
There was a sharp increase in number of recorded attacks in 2000 (40 attacks). Prior to this recorded attacks were in single figures. The Cambodian statistics may also under-represent the true number since many victims do not report the attacks or seek medical assistance. With its sister organisations in Uganda, Nepal and Cambodia, ASTI has supported them in key advocacy objectives as defined in the United Nations Trust Fund (UNTF) supported project. The funding received from UNTF for the Cambodia Acid Survivor’s Charity (CASC) enabled them to dedicate resources to advocacy. CASC teamed up with two other key agencies and began to lobby the appropriate government representatives, starting with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. By January 2012 the first law on acid violence in Cambodia was ratified by the National Assembly, Senate, and King. CASC was formally acknowledged for their efforts in the development of the law by the Ministry of Interior. The number of reported attacks in Cambodia have fallen significantly, back to single figures.
1500 RECORDED ATTACKS EVERY YEAR
80% OF ATTACKS ARE ON WOMEN
Violence against women and girls is the most widespread form of systematic abuse worldwide, affecting one third of all women in their lifetime. Preventing violence against women and girls is a development goal in its own right, and important in achieving better lives for individual women, their families and greater development progress for communities and nations.
ESTIMATED AMOUNT OF ATTACKS THAT GO UNREPORTED EACH YEAR
Acid and burns violence, like other forms of violence against women and girls, both reflect and perpetuate the inequality of women in society. Whilst there is limited information on the numbers of acid and burns attacks in ASTI’s focus countries, which appear to be in the hundreds, there is no doubt as to the devastating and lifelong consequences for the women and girls who experience it. Acid attacks cause immediate damage, disfigurement, pain and long-lasting medical complications for victims. Significant surgery is required by acid burns victims, as well as long-term support and rehabilitation. In addition, victims of acid and burns violence suffer psychological trauma, economic and social ostracism.
INCREASE IN ACID VIOLENCE IN THE UK OVER THE LAST 10 YEARS
A literature review shows the global nature of the problem of acid-based violence and reinforces that it is not confined to particular regions, religions or cultures. It also highlights that the cause and characteristics of burn injuries vary widely across the globe, with significant age and gender differences of victims among countries (Dissanaike and Rahimi 2009). An estimated 90% of global burn injuries occur in developing countries, with huge associated social and economic costs (Atiyeh, Costagliola et al. 2009).
It is difficult to gauge the true scale and prevalence of the issue for a number of reasons. Victims of acid and burns violence often do not report the true cause of the injuries out of shame or fear. Most developing countries do not have a comprehensive national system for recording and monitoring burn injuries. Furthermore, where there are resources available, these are usually focused in urban areas, leading to greater under-reporting in rural areas (Dissanaike and Rahimi 2009). People may never present themselves to hospitals for treatment, so their cases go unrecorded, or there may be large areas of the country that are remote or in conflict (as is the case for Uganda) where there may not be medical facilities or relevant NGOs who might collect data are not working for security reasons.
In international law, states have a due diligence obligation to prevent such violence from occurring, to protect victims, to punish perpetrators, and to provide compensation to those who have suffered from it. Former UN Special Rapporteurs on (a) Torture & Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Mr. Manfred Nowak) and (b) Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences (Professor Yakin Ertürk) have recently (2010 and 2011 respectively) commented on the linkages of acid violence to torture and Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) and there is an emerging attention to this crime on the international agenda.
The main research on acid violence to date has been undertaken through ASTI and its partners through a programme funded by the UN Trust Fund. Initial findings show that providing redress to victims in the form of ongoing psychosocial and economic support to help them rebuild their lives and to cover healthcare costs is one of the recommendations for governments to address the consequences of acid violence.
Another important issue, highlighted by an ASTI study (Justice? What Justice? Tackling acid violence and ensuring justice for survivors), is the need to address the impunity of perpetrators because of the lack of laws criminalising the use of acid as a weapon, lack of implementation of existing laws and the inadequate response of police. In Bangladesh where laws have been stronger since 2002 and additionally there is a law to limit the sale of acid and a public awareness campaign, there is evidence of a drop in the number of cases.