In a world striving to sophisticate its weapons, the most banal liquid can still be a fatal weapon in the hands of the vicious. Acid attacks are an unlikely trend, with powerful results nevertheless. It is also mainly addressed to women.
It is interesting to note that violence with such crude results is addressed mainly to women, often by men who have taken a romantic interest in them. They are related to rejection of sexual advantages, marriage proposals, dowry issues and land disputes. The tender age of the victims should also be noted: according to Taru Bahl and M.H. Syed, 70% of the victims are under the age of 18.
When acid comes in touch with the skin, it burns it layer after layer after layer. This slow process can go on for days, causing horrific pain to the victim, as the liquid goes on to disfigure every part of the body it touches. It will also leave the victim with deep scars which, according to the severity of the attack, may cause complete disfigurement of the person.
Yet it is not fatal which demonstrates exactly the viciousness of the attacker. Humans, like all mammals, take pride in their appearance, as it serves them in multiple biological ways, which has acquired additional sociocultural significance during the evolutionary process. Beauty is a sign of good genes, physical well-being and procreation potency, thus signifying a good family background, respectable social position and the functioning of the person as a desirable partner. When the body and face are destroyed, the person is experiencing a type of death-like situation: she looses her individual characteristics that externalized a significant part of her personality and allowed people to engage to her, at least when first meeting. Instead, these features are replaced by shapeless skin that may cause aversion to humans. This aversion, as it could be suggested, is related to people’s fear of death and pain.
So, the person becomes invisible, but not being ordinary any longer: people turn their heads, avoid talking to her directly or, in worse cases, make fun or abuse her. She is position at the margin of society, with her future in stake: the prospects of marriage, family and inclusion are significantly diminished. Therefore, the perpetrator has not only succeeded in “avenging” the victim for her rejection, but has also marked her and turned her into a warning for the society as a whole. This is especially prominent in the case of acid victims by Talibans in Afghanistan, where the attackers were targeting schoolgirls.
However, Afghanistan is not the only Asian country where acid attacks are common: in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Gaza there have also been numerous incidents, often related to family honour and religion. Men are not the only perpetrators as well: in Cambodia, some women have used it to avenge their husband’s lovers. Laws have been drawn, foundations have been created to support the victims. Some of them have even stepped forward and shared their experiences and talked about the life after.
These are, however, only small steps towards tackling the issue. Even extensive treatment and emotional support sometimes are not enough to help the victim overcome the emotional scars sustained. A prominent victim of acid attack committed suicide a few days ago. Fakhra Yunus ended her life after ten years of treatment. Her alleged attacker (and then husband) Bilal Khar, a man of significant political influence, was never charged and is still living free in Pakistan (this man also deserves to be “famous” like Kony).
It is not an issue restricted to the development world though. Europe has experienced its share of violent attacks. Katie Piper has participated in many documentaries that chronicled her rehabilitation process and search of understanding beauty. A few days ago, an Englishman used acid to attack a muslim woman with a child, without, fortunately, hurting the child or causing her significant damage.
What could it be done to help the victims? Prevention – as in most cases – is the best treatment. Respect for women and other individuals, zero tolerance by the society to perpetrators of any short of violence against women and children is a step towards the right direction. A country’s development cannot be measured strictly by reference to economic indexes: a good society to live in is a society with respect for its members, regardless the sex. This is a goal that can be universally achieved and is not strictly related to education or culture, but rather to humanity and respect for life.
People are speaking up, not only victims, but other individuals as well. This is the first step towards the condemnation of the practice by societies as a whole. Legislation and international pressure can only take a society that far: the abandonment of a practice needs to be the decision and concern of the society as a whole, regardless of class, religion, sex or political views. This is the right step forward.