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Surviving acid attacks

Monika Griebeler / re
July 28, 2014

Five years ago, Nusrat lost her face, her courage and her old life when her husband spilled acid over her. All that remains is endless pain. But the incident has also led to a newly found freedom.

Three pictures of women on a black wall (Foto: DW/M. Griebeler)
Image: DW/M. Griebeler

Nusrat was brutally attacked twice: first by her husband who poured acid on her and then - while she was fleeing the room - by her brother-in-law who poured some more. "My clothes dropped off my body and my body was burning," said the young Pakistani woman who stayed in hospital for five months and whose face bears the scars of the incident to this day. "My in-laws often show pictures to my children telling them their mother has turned into a monster," she said.

Every year at least 1500 people become victims of acid attacks worldwide - both women and men - according to aid organizations. But the estimated number of unrecorded cases is probably much higher. In Uganda, for example, 45 percent of the victims are male. The reason for this is often that people are envious of the success, wife or business of others.

However, the fact that women become victims is often linked to relationships or family disputes. "I married into a large family," said Nusrat. "In turn, my brother was engaged to my sister-in-law." But then Nusrat helped her brother get married to the woman he really wanted to marry, instead of her sister-in-law. "That's why I was attacked."

Where women are less worthy

The German photographer Ann-Christine Woehrl has documented stories like Nusrat's. The 39-year old has visited and portrayed both acid attack and burn victims in countries where women are not always regarded as equals such as India, Pakistan, Uganda, Nepal, Bangladesh and Cambodia, among others. Woehrl's pictures and the stories of the women portrayed are currently being displayed at the Munich Museum for Ethnology.

Ann-Christine Woehrl (Foto: DW/M. Griebeler)
Ann-Christine Woehrl's pictures can be seen in the Munich Museum of Ethnology until January 11, 2015Image: DW/M. Griebeler

But there is also Neehari's story. After failing to light a match 49 times, she suceeded in her very last attempt, causing a large part of her body to go up in flames. Her husband had mentally and physically abused her. "He was a sadistic psychopath. One morning he gave me 100 rupees as payment for the night. I was so sad and I couldn't bear it anymore," she said.

And then there is the story of Flavia from Uganda. The 25-year old still doesn't know who attacked her five years ago. "Most people think that it was my ex-boyfriend. But I have no proof. I just want to ask the person: What have I done to you?," she said.

Acid causes skin tissue to melt, often exposing the bones below the flesh, sometimes even dissolving the bone and permanently damaging organs such as nose and ears. Many of the victims become blind. 13 out of 100 patients don't survive an acid attack. And those who survive suffer from never-ending pain as acid continuously disintegrates the cells.

A picture of a woman with bandaged fist (Foto: DW/M. Griebeler)
"There is a strength concealed behind the women who first seemed to be weakened by and invisible to society," said the photographer.Image: DW/M. Griebeler

12 cents for a life

As a weapon, acid also has symbolic effect as it disfigures its victims. Moreover, it is easily available: in many countries it can be purchased for just a few cents in local shops. "In Bangladesh a bottle costs around 12 cents," said Astrid Bracht from the human rights organization Terre des Femmes.

Ever since the sale of acid in Bangladesh was restricted by law in 2002, the number of attacks has gone down significantly. However, 26 cases have been reported this year alone, according to the aid organization Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF).

'No fear in my heart'

Woehrl's exhibition is not as depressing as it may sound. "There is a strength concealed behind the women who first seemed to be weakened by and invisible to society," said the photographer. Many of the victims told Woehrl they felt much stronger, much more themselves. Before they had been treated as a belonging, now they are willing to challenge this view. "I think they have managed to free themselves from the different attributes imposed on women in these societies. "It is unbelievable to see how they are making progress."

A black woman with scares on her back is combing her hair (Foto: DW/M. Griebeler)
Flavia, who survived an acid attack five years ago, is now enjoying salsaImage: Ann-Christine Woehrl/Echo Photo Agency

Flavia, for example, initially isolated herself and stayed home for several years. But then, a friend took her out one evening to dance salsa. "Initially I was hiding from the others, and just kept observing the situation. But after some time I met new people, who danced with me - and I became really good." Today, Flavia hardly has time for a pause because others like to dance with her so much.

After fighting against her body and the stigma, Nusrat is now fighting for her future - with the support of her children who also console her. In the meantime, Nusrat has met other acid attack victims via ASF. "Some of them were burned so badly that they can't see or move their hands or eat by themselves anymore," she said. "I am so grateful as I am able to eat and see the world. I can take care of myself. The life God has given me is so wonderful." Today Nusrat is working in a beauty salon and says she doesn't feel "any fear in my heart anymore."

The exhibition "Un/sichtbar" (in/visible) at the Munich Museum of Ethnology is open until January 11, 2015. Edition Lammhuber published the book by the same title.

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