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Globalization

Cambodia struggles to curb violent acid attacks

The physical and emotional scars of acid violence last a lifetime. Many survivors have spent years waiting for their attackers to face justice. In Cambodia, an end to the violence remains elusive.

Som Bunnarith sits near his home at a refuge for acid attack survivors on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia Copyright: Irwin Loy / DW

Som Bunnarith sits near his home at a refuge for acid attack survivors on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia Copyright: Irwin Loy / DW

For 24-year-old Rith Sovann, the January morning started like any other.

She had been going through her morning routines - preparing breakfast and getting ready for work. Upon leaving home, a woman approached her - a co-worker from the garment factory. What came next would change Rith Sovann's life forever.

"She wanted to talk with me," Sovann recalled. "I said, 'We don't have anything to talk about.' So she shouted at me: 'You'll see the end result.' I looked up, and she threw acid at me."

It's been months since the attack. The searing liquid left painful scars on her body, and down one side of her face. Sovann receives treatment for her wounds at a quiet farm retreat outside the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

It's a refuge for people like her - men and women who have survived debilitating acid attacks. But it's not just the physical injuries that trouble her.

"I never go out. I can't face the public," Sovann said. "Before the attack, I would. When people looked at me, it was fine. Now when they look at me, they look at me like I'm strange."

Leaving a mark

The emotional trauma is just one part of what makes acid crimes so horrific.

A woman shows scarring on her hands. She was injured after she was doused with acid in the 1990s. Copyright: Irwin Loy / DW

This woman, who otherwise wanted to remain anonymous, was willing to show her hands, scarred during an attack in the 1990s.

"It's not intended to kill the victim," said Ziad Samman, project manager at the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, or CASC. "Not many cases of acid attacks result in death. But it's this idea that the victims will spend every day walking around with these scars, marked for life."

Acid attacks are a global phenomenon. Countries like India and Pakistan are struggling to contain the violence. For the past decade in Bangladesh, more than 100 people each year have become victims of acid attacks. In these countries, the majority of targets are women and the problem is often perceived to be one of gender-based violence.

This woman in Bangladesh, whose face and neck are scarred from an acid attack, took part in a 2012 awareness rally about violence against women Copyright: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

This woman in Bangladesh took part in a 2012 awareness rally about violence against women

But here in Cambodia, that's not necessarily the case. Of the more than 300 cases CASC has recorded since the 1980s, the numbers of men and women attacked have been more evenly split.

"It's very difficult to pigeonhole this issue," Samman said. "A lot of it comes down to a lack of conflict resolution. People don't necessarily resolve their issues or their conflicts until it gets to the point where everything bubbles up and then they act."

Cracking down

Though the motivations behind the attacks may vary, one crucial problem fueling the violence is that acid is often widely available and inexpensive. Advocates for acid burn survivors want to see the dangerous liquids strictly regulated.

Authorities have made moves to curb the violence. In recent years, courts have more frequently prosecuted perpetrators. And last year, the Cambodian government passed a new law specifically targeting acid violence. It mandates tough penalties, including lengthy prison terms, for those who are convicted. But authorities have yet to introduce sweeping restrictions on the sale of acid. Without this, advocates say, acid attacks will only continue.

For now, acid burn survivors here are trying to rebuild their lives.

Som Bunnarith wearing sunglasses as he sits next to a window Copyright: Irwin Loy / DW

Som Bunnarith has made peace with his wife, the perpetrator of the acid attack

Seven years ago, Som Bunnarith's wife threw acid on him in an attack that left him nearly blind. He said he knows he can no longer return to his old job as a soft drinks salesman. But as a peer counselor at CASC, he's trying to help others who are going through something similar to what he experienced.

Moving forward

Bunnarith said he has made peace with his wife. The most important thing to him now is to provide a future for their three teenage children.

"This story is all in the past now," he said. "Now, I only think about trying to work hard and make money for my family. I don't want my children to be ignored and not get a good education. So, even though I'm blind, I keep trying, so that my children can study. That's the way I see it."

For others, though, the wounds are still fresh, and moving forward is a long process.

Rith Sovann feels fear when she thinks about her attack. Her assailant, the co-worker, was also someone her boyfriend used to date. "They loved each other a long time ago," Sovann said. "She thought if she couldn't have him, then nobody else could have him either."

Her case is still working its way through Cambodia's often inert court system. And the woman who doused acid on her face, for now, remains free. "I'm still afraid because they haven't arrested her yet," Sovann said. "Maybe it could happen again."