Latin America doesn’t generally pop into my mind when it comes to acid attacks on women. There’s usually some news flash or article detailing the sadly disturbing story of a woman from a fundamentalist Muslim society being doused with vitriol by a male member of her community. The possible offenses might range from refusing to wear the hijab, behaving too “promiscuously” (however that may be defined), being suspected of adultery, or refusing a marriage proposal. Tragic, but unfortunately not 100% surprising from a religion that in its most radicalized forms can be repressive and abusive toward women.
More surprising is the rising frequency of women targeted by acid attacks in Colombia. TrustLaw’s Anastasia Moloney recently profiled Gloria Piamba, a 26-year-old Colombian woman attacked with acid in 2010. She was walking in downtown Bogota when someone –allegedly her ex-boyfriend — threw a liquid substance in her face. She says:
“Initially, I thought it was petrol, then I heard someone from the crowd shout, ‘It’s acid, it’s acid,”…”It felt like my skin, my face was falling off. My eyes were moving in and out like ping pong balls from the pain…”
Following her hour-long wait in the emergency room, Piamba suffered acid burns on her mouth, nose and left eye. Moloney writes that Piamba not only still wears a mask to hide her misshapen mouth and a patch to protect her damaged eye, but also has to have a tube in her nostril in order to keep it from collapsing in on itself. Understandably, the attack left Piamba more than shaken:
“The doctors told me to forget about the face I once had,” said Piamba, who has undergone six facial reconstructive surgeries so far. “Those words almost killed me. I thought about jumping off the 7th floor of the hospital.”
So why acid? In general, it seems the motivation behind these attacks aren’t all that different from those in countries with fundamentalist Muslim communities. Dr. Linda Guerrero, a plastic surgeon in Colombia, blames the prevalent macho attitudes toward women in her country. She explains:
When a woman has little schooling and no job, she’s financially dependent on a man. That creates a situation where women are inferior, where men can say, “I’m the owner of that woman and therefore I have a right to do want I want with her.”
I guess that includes throwing acid in her face. Perhaps attackers choose their weapon with this in mind. In a culture where women’s physical beauty is emphasized — and to some extent expected — maybe men see themselves as hitting women where it hurts the most. If a disgruntled boyfriend or husband decides to attack his partner with acid, he may be cutting himself off from a future relationship with her, but perhaps he’s simultaneously lowering her chances of building an intimate relationship with someone else. Furthermore, if physical appearance is especially valued by society, a victim’s likelihood of finding a good-paying job could also diminish according to the severity of her deformity. The unfortunate lover/girlfriend/wife could sink even further into economic dependence.
This doesn’t seem to be too far off from what happened in Piamba’s case. She suffered physical abuse at the hands of her now ex-boyfriend for two years. She told TrustLaw, “He used to tell me, ‘If you’re not mine then you’re nobody else’s.’” During this period of being beaten — and even attacked with a knife — she turned to the police and courts seven times. Instead of receiving help, she was apparently accused of provoking the abuse. (The old blame-the-victim technique strikes again.)
She had been separated from her ex for five months before the attack, and suspects that he had been stalking her that very day. It seems that if the local authorities had taken her reports of abuse seriously, not only her disfiguration, but also the severe emotional trauma she has suffered, could have been prevented. More worryingly for Piamba, her financial security has also been affected. She’s concerned that her deformity will inhibit her ability to find a much-needed job so that she can continue to provide a decent quality of life for herself and her son.
According to Dr. Guerrero, the lack of justice in Piamba’s case is far from unusual. She blames police incompetence for the fact that men carrying out these acid attacks are seldom convicted. Furthermore, acid attacks aren’t treated with the severity they deserve in the Colombian justice system. They are listed as “personal injury,” which means attackers can get away with a maximum of six years in prison, or in some cases, serve their time through house arrest. Fortunately, there is apparently legislation in the works to both increase the severity of punishment for attackers as well as regulate the sale of the acids used to carry out the attacks.
Whether it’s incompetency or leniency, there seems to be little immediate relief for women like Piamba. The number of women in Colombia annually attacked with acid appears to be steadily rising. 55 women were victims of acid attacks in 2010, and 19 women suffered attacks from January-April of 2012 — an increase from the same period last year. Obviously, this is one trend that needs to be stopped. Even one more disfigured, emotionally traumatized, financially struggling woman — no matter what culture or country she is a part of — is definitely one too many.
See the video below to meet more victims of acid attacks in Colombia.
Photo Credit: Gabi Agu via Flickr