by Julius Eason
Acid Survivors Trust International defines acid throwing, or vitriolage, as “the deliberate use of acid to attack another human being.” Those who carry out these acts of vitriolage are rarely out to kill their victims: their attacks serve as a form of “punishment.”
So is the case with Sabira Sultana of the city Jhelum, in the Punjab district of Pakistan. Sultana’s “crime” was visiting her family without the permission of her abusive, controlling, much-older husband. She was dragged back home, burned with kerosene oil and locked in a room.
“At the age of 16, when people start their lives, my life had just ended,” Sabira told Deutsche Welle in a report. She was pregnant with child at the time; the baby was lost, along with Sabira’s youth and exuberance.
Cases like Sultana’s are unfortunately on the rise, and serve as the basis for the Depilex Smile Again Foundation. Musarrat Misbah, a makeup artist and human rights activist, founded the organization after a young girl wearing a burka entered her beauty salon for help years ago. Dismissing the girl as a beggar, Misbah was shocked as the girl revealed her horribly disfigured face and decided to try and help. After establishing the Smile Again organization, Misbah has treated hundreds of acid attack victims and the foundation provides 50 free cosmetic surgeries a year to those who are unable to afford them. Many of the employees at the salon in Lahore are victims of vitriolage themselves, offering empathy through personal experience alongside the salon’s services.
Pakistan is not alone. Countries like Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Uganda, Cambodia and Laos are also typically associated with acid attacks. And for many victims, treatment is not as readily available as it is in cities like Lahore.
Largely viewed as a gender-based crime, women are left disfigured for life, suffering damages both physical and psychological. Victims risk blindness if acid directly reaches the eye; their eyelids can melt away or deform. The mouth may end up narrow or fused; the nose may become misshapen, with the nostrils closed off. Cartilage and skin are easily destroyed, and, according to the concentration of the acid, even bone can be affected. When acid vapors are inhaled, even respiratory issues can occur.
Communities aren’t equipped to help victims in the aftermath of an attack. Social ostracism is common, with many victims facing severe isolation, reduced job and marriage prospects, and the heavy weight of others’ stares. Many survivors themselves struggle with the effects. Lowered self-esteem, as well as increased levels of anxiety and depression are common. Severe cases of vitriolage may leave victims handicapped and dependent on others, due to blindness, mobility impairment or the inability to properly feed themselves.
While stricter regulation is being called for, acid is still easy to obtain. Hydrochloric, nitric and sulfuric acids can be obtained for less than $2.00 per liter. These acids are used in anything from mechanic shops to jewelry and gold shops, and can be acquired surreptitiously.
Vitriolage is often committed as a form of domestic violence or revenge. Jealousy, obsession, rejection and suspected infidelity are all common motives behind acid attacks. Since treatment isn’t as widely available, and without laws protecting against such attacks in many of these countries, many of the victims are left with limited resources and little in the way of support, whether legal, medical or psychological.
While far from a widely reported issue, efforts to raise awareness by organizations such as Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) aid in putting a stop to acid violence, or at the very least stifle the frequency of acts. According to ASTI, which also provides victim support, Bangladesh, at one time having the highest reported incidence of acid attacks worldwide, reduced instances by over 70%, from 500 in 2002 to less than 100 in 2012.
Increasing pressure is being applied to governments to introduce legislation to aid and protect victims of vitriolage, as well as prevent future crimes from happening. In 2013, India employed a new law making acid attacks a punishable offense, with the offender facing anywhere from 10 years to life in prison. Efforts are also being made to convince governments to better regulate the purchase of acid, suggesting that acid traders require licensure, or that concentrated acid be banned from certain areas, with each purchase documented.
As it stands, it is cheap and easy to acquire acid. Political corruption and a weak enforcing of the law, combined with limited media coverage, make vitriolage a nearly invisible, persistent crime. Pakistan unanimously passed legislature back in 2011 that leaves perpetrators facing heavy fines and a 14-year to life imprisonment if convicted. Yet today, acid attacks in Pakistan are at an all-time high.
Sabira Sultana’s attack was eight years ago. Today, she works as a patient coordinator at Depilex Smile Again. Initially wandering in as a patient, Sultana has since undergone 30 different surgeries and now stands as a beacon of courage for others. “I look a tad better now after going through a number of surgeries, but the pain I suffered during the whole time is inexplicable,” she said.
In societies that still leave much to be desired in terms of gender equality, it is not uncommon for those committing vitriolage to escape justice. They may simply get away with it, or if convicted, face a reduced sentence and be released on bail. For the victims, who in some cases were only guilty of turning down unwanted sexual advances, the physical and psychological scars serve as a lifetime sentence of a different nature.