Victims of Acid Attacks: Violent Crimes and Ineffective Laws

Investigation by: Alyaa Abu Shahba and Hadeer El Hadary

After several months of engagement, Salma (a pseudonym) decided not to consummate the marriage due to various problems. Her family contacted the young man and informed him of her decision, but no one expected the outcome: Salma suffered the loss of her right eye and endured severe burns on her face and chest due to the “fire water” (Nitric Acid) that her fiancé threw at her in retaliation.

Now approaching her 20th birthday, Salma still remembers the details of the incident that shattered her world three years ago.

It was the same day that her fiancé learned that she had decided to call off their engagement. He intercepted her with his electric bike while she was walking next to her younger brother on the street, trying to sway her resolve. When she refused, he brandished a bottle, threw the contents at her, and fled.

The family pursued legal action, leading to the young man receiving the maximum sentence of ten years in prison. The incident resulted in Salma’s permanent disability. However, the verdict remained in absentia, due to the culprit being a fugitive, but ironically, he kept calling her every now and then to threaten her, or to demand that she drop the case in exchange for marriage. Meanwhile, Salma endured a grueling journey of fifteen surgeries for skin grafts and stem cell transplants, alongside ongoing laser treatments to heal her burned skin.

Salma stands among the fortunate few who can be considered “survivors” in a nation where burn injuries rank as the third leading cause of death, as revealed by a study from Ahl Misr Hospital, renowned for its expertise in burn care. Despite such alarming statistics, the legal framework in Egypt still falls short in providing adequate deterrence against such atrocities.

As per Articles 240 and 241 of the Egyptian Penal Code, perpetrators found guilty of inflicting permanent disability face a maximum penalty of one to three years’ imprisonment, or in other cases up to two years in prison. Alternatively, they pay a fine ranging from 20 to 300 Egyptian pounds (equivalent to approximately half a dollar to $10).

Ahl Misr Hospital, Egypt’s first and only institution dedicated to burn treatment, reveals staggering statistics indicating an estimated half a million annual burn injuries. Despite this alarming figure, the absence of specialized burn hospitals exacerbates the challenge of timely access to treatment, relegating burn patients to university hospital departments scattered across the nation, notably at Qasr al-Aini and Demerdash University Hospitals.

A revealing study conducted by Ahl Misr Hospital, a charitable hospital that is still under construction and funded by donors, sheds light on a distressing trend: women and girls bear a disproportionate brunt of burn injuries, with 10% attributed to spousal violence.

The authors tried to contact the hospital to find out about the methodology of the study and to interview women doctors and cases of acid attacks, but the administration ignored the request and refused to meet with them when they went to the hospital’s headquarters and then to the charity that runs it. The study did not mention the exact numbers or overall percentages, underscoring a concerning lack of transparency and documentation.

The quest for survivors

The journey to find survivors of the acid attacks was not an easy one, as most of them became severely depressed and preferred to remain silent. In addition, they feel that press interviews do not benefit them financially, morally, or legally, which is confirmed by the director of the Tadween Center for Gender Studies, Dr. Amal Fahmy.

The center had launched a social media campaign, aiming to raise awareness about acid violence against women and girls, highlighting its profound health and psychological ramifications, and advocating for more stringent legal measures. The crime is not classified in the law and is often treated as causing permanent disability with a mild punishment of imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years and a fine not exceeding three hundred pounds or one of these two penalties.

Dr. Amal tried to help us get in touch with “Maha” (a pseudonym), a survivor of an acid attack by her ex-fiancé, which caused her face disfigurement, loss of job at a beauty salon, and financial instability as she became unable to support her son from a previous marriage or afford medical expenses. Yet, Maha chose to disappear and change her phone number as she felt that press interviews offered little solace or tangible support, perpetuating a cycle of trauma without recourse to meaningful redress such as state-funded treatment or financial assistance.

Why are there no accurate statistics for victims of acid attacks?

According to Dr. Amal, victims of acid attacks suffer from the exorbitant costs of treatment, the enduring social stigma that hampers employment opportunities, and the glaring absence of psychological support. She emphasizes that the absence of statistics does not mean that these attacks do not exist.

Proposing a proactive approach, Dr. Amal advocates for burn hospitals to implement comprehensive reporting mechanisms, incorporating crucial details such as the circumstances surrounding the injury and the identity of the perpetrator, with a keen focus on the “gender indicator”.  The lack of statistics complicates efforts to ascertain vital information like the age of victims and perpetrators, the causes of these burns, and the demographics most affected.

Dr. Amr Maghazi, a professor of plastic surgery at Suez Canal University and a member of the International Burn Injury Association, explained the different reasons behind the lack of a true figure for burn injuries in Egypt. Many cases, he notes, are either treated in private clinics or receive treatment in hospitals without thorough documentation of the incident’s cause, with priority given solely to medical intervention. Furthermore, the absence of an effective communication mechanism among hospitals exacerbates the challenge of tracking and analyzing burn injury cases, including the causes of their burns and their demographic profiles.

Examining legal implications: Insights from forensic medicine

In 2022, a research paper on the legal implications surrounding acid attacks, titled “Medico-legal assessment of acid attack injuries in Egypt” was published. Dr. Khadija Abdel Rahman, a professor of forensic medicine and toxicology at Suez Canal University’s Faculty of Medicine, participated in the research which covered 31 cases spanning a three-year period from 2015 to 2017, analyzing the medico-legal reports of acid burns.

The paper recommended “the urgent need for effective policy implementation to facilitate survivors’ access to vital medical, psychological, and social support services. Furthermore, it emphasized the imperative of socio-cultural and legal reforms and amendments to the permanent disability assessment process to combat acid mutilation.”

In an interview with the authors, Khadija recounted: “I met numerous women and girls who had fallen victim to acid attacks perpetrated by family members. Most of these victims, aged between 20 and 30, shared a harrowing commonality: their assailants were either their husbands, ex-husbands, or former romantic partners.”

The actual number of women victims is difficult to document as they often opt not to report officially.

This reluctance stems from profound fears of enduring further victimization, losing shelter, or a means of livelihood for themselves and their children. Additionally, they fear the protracted legal proceedings and the financial burden associated with pursuing legal recourse.

The doctor elaborated on the challenges of documentation, highlighting the diverse paths cases take and the reluctance of some victims to pursue forensic examination. Instances vary: hospitals may issue reports, cases might proceed directly to court, or victims may choose to label incidents as accidents upon arrival at the hospital. Consequently, victims are dispersed across different places, with only a small fraction undergoing forensic assessment.

According to Khadija Abdel Rahman, the law stipulates that “if a hospital receives a medical case of suspected assault or domestic violence, the hospital must report it. But because of the victim’s fear of the perpetrator, they sometimes say that the incident happened by accident.”

Legally, penalties for injuries caused by incendiary substances are delineated in articles 240, 241, and 242 of the penal code, contingent on the extent of disability and treatment duration.

Severe penalties are reserved for cases resulting in permanent disability and requiring treatment for more than 20 days, particularly in instances of “caustic burns” leading to disfigurement or loss of bodily functions of, for example, an eye, an ear, or a nose.

“The maximum penalty a judge can impose on the perpetrator in the case of caustic burns is ten years in prison. This means that the woman’s face and chest are disfigured and she loses her eyesight, while the perpetrator only receives a lenient sentence. Therefore, a special law on caustic substances must be passed, and a fair compensation must be established to ensure justice aligns with the gravity of the physical and psychological damage.”

Regulating acid sales

Dr. Khadija emphasized the critical need for stringent regulations governing the sale of caustic substances, calling for issuance of permits and the imposition of specific quantity restrictions. Conversely, Maghazi advocated for a complete prohibition on the sale and circulation of such substances, particularly given the reduced public demand for them. This stands in stark contrast to their widespread popularity and extensive usage in car batteries during the 1980s.

What is striking, according to Khadija Abdel Rahman is the glaring absence of a clear legal framework to address “acid crimes,” noting the reliance on legislative texts pertaining to unrelated cases to prosecute perpetrators. To illustrate, she recounts the case of a girl whose ex-fiancé horrifically disfigured a significant portion of her body with acid. It was only due to the prosecutor’s sympathy towards the victim that the perpetrator was charged with “attempted murder,” a charge carrying a minimum sentence of ten years.

“If the legislature had not exercised prudence,” she remarked, “the case would have been classified as ‘causing permanent disability,’ resulting in a mere three-year prison sentence.”

In light of the deficiencies in existing legal frameworks in the Penal Code, particularly concerning domestic violence, various NGOs have launched campaigns urging the enactment of a unified law addressing violence against women. They have advocated for the inclusion of provisions specifically addressing acid attacks within this proposed legislation, highlighting the urgency of codifying measures to combat such heinous crimes.

Five years ago, Hind El Banna launched the “Ihtiwaa’” initiative to support burn victims, driven by her own harrowing experience of being terminated from her job due to facial and hand burns, followed by being bullied and ostracized.

Through the initiative, she was able to help many women who had been mutilated with acid by their romantic partners.

“In my line of work, I’ve encountered countless women who have fallen victim to acid attacks, often as a form of retaliation for ending relationships,” she recounted. “I recall one young woman who lost her eye after her partner doused her with firewater (Nitric acid), and I was able to assist her by providing a prosthetic lens.

However, there was another heartbreaking case where my hands were tied due to insufficient donations. In yet another instance, a husband threw acid not only on his wife but also on their two children. Despite our efforts to support them with donations, temporary shelter, a new place to stay, and some money, her husband did not stop threatening her, forcing her to flee and turn off her phone, and we don’t know anything about her anymore.”

El Banna emphasized “the profound psychological toll endured by these victims, describing their plight as unimaginable and unrecoverable. They face relentless stigma and social ostracization, have difficulty finding a new partner, struggle to secure employment, and remain marginalized, unable to reintegrate into society. These women need a special community-based program that provides them with psychological support, job opportunities, and reintegration.

Change of residence

In our search for survivors, we encountered an incident of a young woman who declined an engagement proposal from a man in a city within Qalyubia governorate. In response, he threw acid on her face, leading to his subsequent conviction and a ten-year prison sentence. During our investigation, we reached out to one of the neighbors, who revealed that the girl’s family had left their home and relocated to another place which they preferred not to disclose. This decision stemmed from concerns about the girl’s reputation, particularly since she had not yet reached her twentieth year. Following the court’s ruling against the assailant, the father made the difficult choice to uproot his family and seek refuge elsewhere.

Another tragedy was the case of Habiba (a pseudonym), who lives in a village in Kafr al-Sheikh governorate, in the northernmost reaches of the Nile Delta.

Habiba filed a divorce case against her husband, and after the ruling was issued in her favor, the ex-husband went to her house and threw a bottle of “fire water” on the entire family, leaving the mother, sister, and father blinded, while Habiba suffered severe burns to her back and legs.

Habiba’s aunt explained that the bereaved family lives in complete isolation. The mother has lost the desire to speak, and the father is traumatized and unable to complete a sentence. Habiba endures constant pain, exacerbated by the sweltering summer temperatures. The youngest sister, who is unmarried and works as a nurse, is the sole breadwinner of the family despite her blindness, but she refused to talk to us at all.

The ex-husband was sentenced to 25 years in prison for attempted murder, while his mother is still seeking a reduced sentence, according to the aunt, who tried to persuade a family member to speak to us, but to no avail.

Raging fury

In the mid-1990s, Nihal married a young fruit vendor at the age of 16, suffering years of physical and psychological violence alongside continuous threats of divorce, all while shouldering the responsibilities of motherhood to five children. When the long-awaited moment of divorce finally arrived, she resolved never to return to her former life.

“I worked as a nurse, my ex-husband traveled and never contacted me, and then he came back to chase me, threatening:”You belong to me, or you belong to no one. I married you when you were just a girl, and now that you’ve blossomed into a pretty woman, you dare to seek another man.”

Nihal filed a report against her ex-husband managing to secure a restraining order. Nonetheless, he still carried out his threat the following day, dousing acid in the face of his wife and their daughter, who was accompanying her.

After a six-hour round of mother and daughter facing hospital refusals, Al-Zahraa hospital agreed to accept only one patient. Nihal preferred to treat her daughter, whose bones had protruded and whose skin had completely melted.

Nihal later underwent twenty surgeries and had to wear a niqab, while her daughter underwent more than fifty surgeries.

For the sake of her children, Nihal waived the report she filed against her husband, but her pain and anger multiplied when she learned that he had already premeditated the crime a month earlier when he bought a bottle of fire water (nitric acid) with a low concentration and tried it on his hand, but it did not burn. So he went back to find another bottle with a higher concentration. He argued that “his anger blinded him from seeing his daughter, whom he did not intend to injure.”

Nihal wore a niqab to hide her face, but she was harassed and felt suffocated because her nostrils after the incident no longer allowed her to breathe easily. With therapy and psychological support, she decided to take off the niqab and face the society around her.

Costly treatment 

Maghazi explained the profound impact of acid burns, categorized under chemical burns for their penetrating nature, capable of reaching depths that imperil muscle and bone.

Such injuries often culminate in severe disfigurement, with potential damage extending to vital organs, resulting in vision loss, nasal constriction, or impaired mouth function.

As for treatment, Maghazi explained that most acid burns afflict the face. Because the area of the skin is expansive, this complicates restoration efforts, exacerbating the resulting deformities.

Despite endeavors to mitigate damage gradually using natural skin flaps to restore, achieving full recovery, particularly in cases of total vision loss, is difficult.

Maghazi highlighted the emergence of facial transplant procedures as a promising avenue that has become popular. However, he underscored a significant caveat: the profound psychological toll endured by survivors upon confronting their altered faces. Oftentimes, these interventions fail to meet the survivor’s expectations when she sees her new face.

Thus, women may escape death after acid burn incidents, but the scars etched upon their faces, bodies, and souls serve as perpetual reminders of the word “no,” exacting a toll that transcends physical wounds. This burden is further compounded by the anguish of witnessing perpetrators evade just retribution.


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