While visiting her mother in 2014 in Bogotá, Colombia, Natalia Ponce de León had a liter of sulfuric acid thrown in her face by a man she did not know. She was burned badly on a third of her body and since has undergone more than 30 reconstructive surgeries, many of them on her face.
Colombia has the world's highest rate of acid attacks per capita, with more than 1,500 incidents self-reported in the past 13 years: 84 percent of the victims of assaults with caustic chemicals, like sulfuric and nitric acids, were women. But the statistics don't reflect the actual number of women who likely were burned in this brutal way. Most cases go unreported due to persistent cultural and structural discrimination against and stigmatization of women.
Acid attacks are one of the most extreme forms of violence against women and girls globally. They occur more often in countries with gendered systems of oppression where assailants face no or minimal punishment.
In Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, corrosive chemicals are common and cheap. Men turn to them as a quick way to destroy the lives of women who they think have rejected them. It happens in too casual, terrifying fashion, according to Make Love Not Scars, a nonprofit group that works with acid-attack survivors. In a recent campaign against acid attacks, the group showcased Reshma Qureshi, a survivor from India who turns a seeming beauty advice video into a searing denunciation of the ease with which men can obtain acids. They are as readily and cheaply available as red lipstick in Indian markets, she says.
Men turn to acid as a quick way to destroy the lives of women who they think have rejected them.
Acid attacks aren't unique to low- and middle-income countries and women—though females are disproportionately targeted globally. Since 2011, London has recorded 1,500 attacks, with 80 percent of incidents gang-related and involving assaults by men against men. Italy has also seen a recent surge in the crimes, with 27 registered cases in 2016; most victims were women attacked by husbands and former boyfriends. In Russia, opposition activists have been splashed with acids and dyes, and a star dancer has been convicted, imprisoned, and paroled for engineering the acid-blinding of the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet.
After recovering, Ponce de León became a high-profile campaigner against impunity for acid attacks in Colombia. She founded Fundación Natalia Ponce de León, which fights for the rights of chemical attack survivors.
Her activism helped prod the Colombian government to enact a law, named after her, imposing tougher punishments for acid attackers. They now face prison sentences ranging from 12 to 50 years, depending on their crimes' severity and the harm done to their victims. Previously, the law treated such attacks as lesser physical aggressions, like beatings. Few attackers were convicted and jailed.
In March, Ponce de León received the U.S. Secretary of State's Woman of Courage Award for her leadership in advocating for the rights of Colombian acid attack victims. She also has been recognized with a 2017 global Eisenhower Fellowship, which provides a unique leadership development training to young changemakers from around the world tackling complex problems in their country of origin. She is working with organizations and civil society groups to improve emergency response to acid attacks in Colombia, she said in a recent interview during a visit to RAND's Santa Monica office. “Police are not properly trained,” Ponce de León said, “and they don't understand this type of violence is different from other forms of violence. It requires a quick response and a comprehensive knowledge of what to do on the scene and how to treat victims so the damage is minimized.”
“This type of violence is different from other forms of violence.”
First responders often have no idea what to do in acid attacks, she says. Her foundation is working with hospital burn units, police, and prosecutors on how to triage cases and provide victims swift care that can improve their outcomes.
Ponce de León also expressed passion about working with survivor-victims as well as their families. “Families want to take matters into their own hands and want revenge because they feel like the justice system has failed them,” she said, but in some cases, family members' injurious or even fatal reprisals keep alive a vicious cycle of violence. She wants to help end it.
She also emphasized the diligence and strategic care with which campaigns must be conducted against acid crimes, especially via social media: “The last thing we want is to unintentionally give potential attackers ideas about how to do it well. We must be careful in the type of information we share.”
“The most difficult thing is to forgive yourself. I had to remind myself that I was not a monster.”
Acid attacks have devastating, lifelong consequences for women survivors. The assaults, like other forms of gender-based violence, are rooted in a discriminatory social order that emphasizes patriarchal control over women, experts say (PDF). It permits violence against women with impunity. As they strive to eliminate gender bias and advance toward egalitarian societies, officials could combat violence against women, especially acid attacks, by passing laws to make it tough to get dangerous chemicals, punishing perpetrators, and providing survivors redress.
While Ponce de León remains optimistic about the future—for her and other survivors—she said society can help by not isolating or stigmatizing survivors. Instead, programs should be put in place that try to build their self-confidence, and encourage them to keep pursuing their dreams and sustain independent livelihoods. “The most difficult thing is to forgive yourself,” she said. “I had to remind myself that I was not a monster. At times, even after we have overcome our trauma, others make us feel different by preventing us from having jobs, going outside, and shaming us for what happened. The outside world needs to learn how to deal with our face so we can go about our lives.”
Mahlet Woldetsadik is an assistant policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a Ph.D. candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. This blog post was written for the Pardee Initiative for Global Human Progress.