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Editor's Note
In Focus Health Highlights
International Health

Spring 2002; Volume 3, Number 1
International Health

Acid Attacks: Bangladesh's Efforts to Stop the Violence
Jordan Swanson
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Just after midnight on April 16, 2000, 13-year-old Jannatul Ferdous awoke from her sleep with the sensation that an extra linen sheet was being pulled over her body. Seconds later, excruciating pain enveloped her chest and face. A sudden pain jolted the back of her brother, who was sleeping beside her in the small bed. A cup of battery acid thrown through the window engulfed the young girl and her brother as they lay sleeping.

The perpetrator was a young man in his twenties, angry that Jannatul had refused his wedding proposals. Jannatul's family had heard about acid attacks on women, but it was not until after daybreak that her parents realized the severity of the situation and took her to a nearby medical clinic in the rural Lakshmipur region of Bangladesh, several hundred kilometers north of downtown Dhaka. The next day she was treated at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, having spent hours in the waiting room despite her third-degree burns.[1]

Approximately 300 people in Bangladesh share Jannatul's experience each year, and 41 percent of victims are under the age of 18. Tragically, the attack on Jannatul was characteristic for several reasons. It is often the case that attacks take place in the middle of the night, that a nearby family member is also victim to the attack, and that the victim does not get quick or adequate medical attention despite his or her urgent need of it. Further, 78 percent of reported acid violence happens to women, with the most common reasons for attack being the refusal of marriage, the denial of sex, and the rejection of romance.[2]

Acid attacks leave victims horribly disfigured. Because most attacks are directed at the face in order to permanently scar the victim and destroy her physical appearance, often times the victim is left blinded. Jannatul is considered fortunate with regard to the extent of medical care she has received: she spent ten weeks in the Dhaka hospital and returned in June, 2001 from a year-long stay in Florida to receive special plastic surgery. Despite this care, permanent scars still mar her face. Even after extensive treatment gauges inevitably remain, making social reintegration and marriage very difficult. Victims usually become depressed and are treated as outcasts by family, neighbors, and friends.

Despite the frequency of acid attacks and the high traumatic acuity of each, acid violence is a little known phenomenon; what little is known has not resulted in substantially improved care nor a decreased prevalence of attacks. The following pages document a front line investigation of acid violence in Bangladesh and what is being done about it, with subsequent analysis of the current challenges of intervention programs.

Acid violence is among the grossest of human rights violations, and the goal of this examination is to focus the debate and the point of intervention in order to more effectively address the problem. This inquiry draws substantially on privileged interviews conducted by the author in June 2001 with survivors of acid attacks, as well as with those working to help them and to prevent future violence against others

A Cheap and Available Weapon

A decade ago, acid attacks were committed almost exclusively against women, and only as a crime of vengeance. However, there has been a pronounced increase in acid attacks overall and against men in recent years.[3] Now, nearly 25 percent of reported victims are male. Recently, victims as old as 60 have been targets of this type of violence.[4]

A cup of acid, usually sulfuric acid poured from any car battery or purchased from auto repair shops, costs only a few cents, and is therefore both a cheap and available weapon. Some perpetrators throw acid in an attempt to obtain the victim's land, believing that the family will be forced to sell their property in order to pay for medical treatment.

A common myth both within Bangladesh and in the external development community holds acid violence to be permanently and historically engrained in Bangladeshi society. Such a perspective is clearly inconsistent with historical evidence. Acid violence was first identified as a problem in the region of Bangladesh in the 1960s.[5] Although acid attacks may have occurred prior to this time, political turnover and a lack of documentation preclude conclusive evidence. Demystifying the notion of intrinsic acid violence, or even gender inequality more broadly, is a crucial first step to enabling the alleviation of this problem.[6]

The number of acid attacks increased steadily in the two decades following Bangladesh's independence in 1971, from approximately a dozen each year to about 50 per year in the mid-1990s. But in the late 1990s, cases reported by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the government shot up to 250 per year and have leveled off at that point since then. Although both NGOs attribute the steady increase of attacks since 1960 to the increasingly public role of women, neither can explain the explosion of cases in the mid-1990s. Representatives of both NGOs assert that while improved NGO efforts to track cases coincided with the increase in reported cases in the late 1990s, there was a real increase in cases not just an apparent increase due to more thorough coverage. NGOs recognize that some cases do go unreported, but given the strength of the reporting system now in place, it is thought that less than 50 cases go unreported each year, putting the total cases at about 300 annually.[7] The 1990s also saw the arrival of the first strong NGO efforts to counteract acid violence. Naripokkho, formed in 1995, is a women's advocacy organization, and the Dhaka-based Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), founded in 1999, is an NGO spearheading collaborative work against the attacks.

Prior to the late 1990s, the lack of an official reporting infrastructure led to inconsistent tracking of acid throwing incidents and made it difficult to trace acid violence as a countrywide phenomenon, even though acid burns were on the Ministry of Health's list of reportable cases. Tracking the cases should theoretically be very convenient, given that acid violence nearly always necessitates hospitalization and that there are few private facilities in Bangladesh. Although victims sometimes do not see the perpetrator, and at other times do not want to mention his name for fear that he will punish the victim's family, victims are usually candid in saying that they received the burns from an acid attack.

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Jordan Swanson is an undergraduate at Harvard College.

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