An acid attack is the throwing of corrosive acid on a human target. It is not a new phenomenon. Acid attacks were reported in Europe in the 19th century, and in China, India, Pakistan, Egypt, England, Italy, Jamaica, Malaysia, Nigeria, Vietnam, and the United States in the latter part of the 20th century. Most often, these attacks are by men on women, single and married, who have dared to spurn suitors, seek divorce, anger powerful community leaders, and generally transgress from their socially prescribed roles. A few men have also been victims, just as a few women have been perpetrators. Occasionally, men have attacked other men with acid to seek revenge, retaliate, or settle disputes. Acid violence has attracted international attention relatively recently with a spate of gendered attacks in Bangladesh.
Acid became the weapon of choice in violence against young women in Bangladesh, where the first case was documented in 1967. Subsequently, reported cases have been increasing: 47 in 1996, 130 in 1997, and 200 in 1998. By some reports, acid attacks increased 53% between 2000 and 2001, and nearly 300 cases were recorded per year. Such statistics are partial at best, as many families refrain from reporting acid attacks to authorities fearing further reprisals from perpetrators.
The majority of victims in Bangladesh are rural young girls and women of working and lower socioeconomic classes, ranging in age between their early teens and twenties. The weapon frequently is the sulfuric acid used in car batteries that is easily and cheaply available in local garages and stores. Commonly, perpetrators are neighbors, acquaintances, husbands, and other male relatives, who may attack a sleeping victim. The attacks might be the result of jealousy, rejection in love, rebuffed marriage proposals, or a man’s failure to extort additional dowries from his wife’s family. Since the motivation behind acid attacks is not only to punish women but also to permanently destroy their social and economic lives, faces are particular targets of disfigurement and blinding.
Some theorists link the upsurge in acid attacks on women in Bangladesh with forces of globalization. The main industry in Bangladesh, Western garment factories that manufacture export materials, tend to hire young women rather than men, thus placing women in the unconventional role of employed worker and men into financial dependency. This contravention of traditions challenges masculinity, which historically has been based on wage earning and protecting the family. It is thought that as men lose gender-based social power to women, their violence against women intensifies.
In the 1980s, women’s nongovernmental agencies in Bangladesh, led by Naripokkho, organized to focus the national and international spotlight on acid attacks on women, which ultimately led to the founding of the Acid Survivors Foundation in 1999. Bangladeshi women’s activism facilitated needed social services and medical treatment in the country for survivors, and for some survivors in Europe and the United States as well. In 1989, Bangladesh made acid violence a crime punishable by death, although very few perpetrators have been tried in courts, let alone received the death penalty. Enforcement of laws that criminalize violence against women still remains a serious problem in Bangladesh.
- Anwary, A. (2003). Acid violence and medical care in Bangladesh: Women’s activism as carework. Gender & Society, 17, 305–313.
- Taylor, L. M. (2001). Saving face: Acid attack laws after the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law, 29, 395–426.
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