A sour fruit stand sits in the wet heat of monsoon season in Kampong Cham, Cambodia. Its vendor is pregnant. Eight months pregnant. A woman and a little boy pull up on a moto. He gets off the moto while she stays on. He’s carrying a plastic soda bottle filled with acid.
When he reaches the stand he quickly unscrews the cap and dowses the vendor’s face. The liquid drips onto her arms and stomach. Instantly she screams in agony. The boy dashes to his mother’s moto. The woman is blinded for life. She will give birth to a little girl who will only live for four days.
A crowded marketplace in Phnom Penh bustles. A sixteen-year-old girl feeds her little sister, unaware that a group of men stalks behind her. When they catch up, they beat her to the ground and a woman throws liters of acid on top of her head. Her ears and skin melt, revealing bone. She is temporarily blinded, and will undergo a dozen surgeries in attempt to salvage her mangled face.
In both of these acid violence, or vitriolage, cases, the perpetrators planned the attacks because the victims were having affairs with their husbands. The motivation comes from the notion that if the mistress is no longer physically beautiful, the husband will break off the relationship. Monira Rahman, the Executive Director of the Acid Survivors Foundation, explained this mentality to the United Nations: ‘If I take her beauty away, no one will marry her.’
Recovery from an attack is a painful process that entails burn treatment, physical therapy, and reconstructive surgery. Beyond medicine, survivors can feel socially isolated and experience difficulty finding work. More often than not, perpetrators of acid violence avoid legal ramifications for their cruelty, and so survivors go forward without justice.
A 2003 Project Against Torture report states, “While some acid throwers have been convicted and sent to prison, others-especially those with power or money-live freely.” The fruit stand vendor filed charges after her attack, but her lover and his lawyer paid her 500,000 riels, about 125 dollars, to drop them. The amount barely covered her medical expenses from recovery.
The sixteen-year-old in Phnom Penh received a threat, instead of compensation, for her acid attack. Her name is Tat Marina, and she’d been romantically involved with Cambodia’s Undersecretary of State, Svey Sitha, who locked her up without clothing for weeks to warn her of what might happen if she were to end the relationship.
When his wife committed the crime in 1999, Sitha paid for Marina’s medical bills and warned her that reporting to authorities would result in more violence.
In 2000, the number of reported acid attacks in Cambodia surged from 7 to 40. Many human rights activists believe this increase is due to the fact that Sophal was never punished for her crime.
While shooting for their film Bombhunters in Cambodia in 2006, Duncan and Fitzgerald of Portland’s SpinFilm were shocked at the number of people in the marketplaces who had deformities from chemical burns. Research led them to Tat Marina’s well-known case. The couple decided to seek justice for Marina by way of a documentary film.
Duncan and Fitzgerald ensured that Marina and her family moved out of the Cambodia before premiering their work Finding Face last year. With the family safe from Sitha’s threats, they could screen their epic work, which features Marina’s voice recounting her attack and recovery.
Like Marina, many women fall victim to acid violence because of marital and relationship disputes. According to the Cambodia Acid Survivors Charity, 40 percent of acid violence cases in the country are caused by “extramarital affairs or hate and jealousy.”
Acid violence is documented not only Cambodia, but also in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ethiopia, India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Hong Kong, Uganda, China, Barbados, England and the United States.
In Bangladesh, people who throw acid can be subject to the death penalty. In Iran, people who throw acid can be subject to losing the body parts that they’ve disfigured on others. A report by Cornell Law School released last week reveals that despite harsh punishments for these crimes, acid violence continues. It concludes that states looking to eliminate acid violence should enact laws limiting the access to acid, such as requiring licensing of distributors and business users of acid and banning its use in households.
It’s brave survivors like Tat Marina, revealing media like Finding Face, and proactive government intervention that will allow for vitriolage to be fully realized and eradicated.
To learn more about Finding Face, visit www.findingface.org.
For updates on upcoming television airings of the film in the United States and reporting these issues worldwide, follow @FindingFace on Twitter.