I recently traveled to Cambodia with a unique purpose:  to follow two different Cambodian NGOs over a 3 week period.  I was a part of a small documentary team and my role was to learn about and document, through pictures and writing, the stories of the women these NGOs were helping.  No beaches, no Angkor Wat, no late nights of partying.  Not your typical trip to Cambodia, but one that was a dream come true for me: a passionate global women’s rights activist.

My background in international development work and women’s rights has given me a basic understanding of large, complex issues affecting women around the world.  But one area that I was sorely ignorant of was the issue of acid burning.  I had heard bits and pieces about gasoline burns, or sati, but somehow the vicious act of acid throwing had not quite registered on my mental list of violent acts against women.

Until Cambodia.  Our first NGO to visit and track was Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC).  I did some preliminary reading and research to inform myself before boarding my flights but felt woefully under-informed nonetheless.  I was the first of our team to arrive and it had been arranged that I would be picked up at 7am by the bus going out to the CASC compound outside of Phnom Penh.  I was grateful for the few hours of sleep I caught in between touchdown and the early-morning departure, but couldn’t entirely quell the anxiety I harbored around seeing and meeting the survivors.  Surrounding my anxiety was shame.  I felt ashamed that I couldn’t trust how I would react to seeing people who were so maimed and visibly suffering  (my brother took the medical school route, not me).

On our ride out to CASC, the Program Manager filled me in on aspects of acid burning.  Acid is a household product that is cheap and readily available, there are no laws in place regulating the sale of acid or any long-term punishments that perpetrators get when convicted.  (As I was to learn later on, even for a survivor to pursue legal justice is both rare – frequently survivors continue to be threatened – and extremely difficult – they have to “prove” that their burns are indeed from acid, not, say, from spilling a boiling pot of water on themselves by accident.)  As in the US, legal assistance is costly and pro bono attorneys are uncommon.

These facts helped give context, but they didn’t answer the one question echoing in my head: why?  Why do this? Clarification came in bits and pieces that I put together after talking with many people.  Perhaps simplistic, I offer it as a baseline explanation.  Since the devastation of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) in which almost a third of the entire country was killed or had died from disease or starvation or torture, Cambodians have (understandably) been very reluctant to trust any official systems such as the police or the government.  So when people have problems or get into disputes, they take it upon themselves to solve or stop them.  Acid is a very effective way to make a problem (person) stop.

This hit me hardest the morning we were invited to watch a procedure in the operating room of a recent acid burn victim.  Thirty years old, the acid had been thrown three weeks prior resulting in blindness and burns on over 30% of her body.  Again, my anxiety of seeing such wounds returned.  We gowned up and packed in our cameras to watch a stomach-churning procedure called “debridement”.  We snapped pictures as the dead skin was picked and scrubbed off revealing a level of dermis normally covered.  The areas treated wept blood and were unnaturally white but soon were covered by layers of gauze.  The only thing that comforted me while watching this was to know that she, at least for those hours, was not in pain.

Acid burning is not exclusive to Cambodia.  This vicious control tactic is used in other countries such as Nepal, Uganda, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.  It is generally considered a form of domestic violence and is usually connected to a woman’s status in relation to her family, specifically to the family’s honor.  Many women survive the attacks only to be relegated to a life of blindness, dependency on a caregiver and as a social outcast.  CASC is the only organization in all of Cambodia which helps survivors in their physical rehabilitation, access on-going medical support, pursue justice through the legal system, and regain a sense of self, community and purpose.

Although the victim ratio between men and women is almost 50/50 in Cambodia, gender inequality lies at the core of these attacks.  As a peer counselor at CASC explained to me, female victims suffer more than male victims because so much of their worth is based on their looks and their connection to the community.  A man without these still has a better chance of being rehabilitated than a woman in a similar situation.

Certainly from a global perspective, gender inequality fuels most acid attacks.  Cambodia is in the process of passing first-time legislation to help regulate the sales of acid and increase the punishments for perpetrators, both of which should help curb the numbers of attacks.  CASC works tirelessly not only to rehabilitate survivors, but as importantly, to raise awareness and educate others.  Having talked with several survivors and heard their stories, I am now committed to doing the same.  Please visit Acid Survivors Trust International to learn more.