DHAKA, January 2001 (AFP) - Teenager Fozila never thought refusing to marry a man would result in a lifelong nightmare -- a frighteningly scarred face after she was attacked with sulphuric acid.
"Please stay with us or else we will not be able to fight the monsters," Fozila implored reporters at a meeting in Dhaka this week on problems of victims of acid attacks. The event was organised by the daily Prothom Alo, which has been raising funds for their treatment and rehabilitation.
Another survivor, Anowara, wept as she told the audience her two-year-old child was afraid of her scarred face.
"My heart cries out to see my baby," she said. "I want the man who did this to me to die a slow death, because hanging is too easy a death for him."
Another victim, Shahinoor, was attacked at her wedding by a man she had refused to marry. Her face was mutilated and the marriage called off.
Acid attacks are decreasing here -- a tough new law means they can be punished by death and imports and sales of acids have been restricted since last year -- but they still take place regularly.
According to plastic surgeon S. Lal Sen about 200,000 Bangladeshis are attacked with acid every year, most of them women and children.
Social workers say some are maimed for life but struggle on, while others die or even commit suicide.
"These crimes are intolerable ... The face of an acid burn victim can never be freed from its monsterous aspects," said visiting Italian plastic surgeon Paolo Morselli at the meeting.
"Those who commit this crime on innocent women and children are perverts as well as psychologically impaired criminals," he said, adding many victims are abandoned by their families and society, and that most can never marry -- often their attackers' intention.
According to press reports, acid attacks are also sometimes used in land and dowry disputes.
Often the acid used in the attacks is imported for industrial use, such as the making of batteries or leather goods, but it is also easy to buy in shops in small quantities.
Commerce ministry officials have said that despite the new commericial restrictions on acid, it was difficult to control stocks that are produced and sold locally.
Tanya Amir, a lawyer who works with acid victims, said their attackers often go unpunished when their victims are from the same family since no charges are laid with police.
She said the attackers also sometimes have friends in high places who pressure police, and witnesses are frequently reluctant to come forward for trials.
Another lawyer working with the victims, Elina Khan, said the practice of settling cases through village leaders should be banned.
Human rights workers believe it is possible to end acid attacks here with widespread public awareness -- but that men, who are almost always the attackers, must take the lead.
Acid victim Nurun Nahar had only had one plea for the audience: "We have courage," she said. "All we need is cooperation from all to live decently, despite our personal and social problems."
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