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Little justice for Colombia's acid victims

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 9 May 2012 14:40 GMT
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BOGOTA (TrustLaw) - It was Christmas Eve when Gloria Piamba's face, and life, changed forever.

She had been walking down a busy street in downtown Bogota with her brother when a liquid was flung in her face. It burned her eyes and seared her skin.

"Initially, I thought it was petrol, then I heard someone from the crowd shout, 'It's acid, it's acid'," said Piamba, recalling the haze of confusion and panic after the attack.

"It felt like my skin, my face was falling off. My eyes were moving in and out like ping pong balls from the pain," the 26-year-old told TrustLaw.

Piamba waited an hour at a hospital emergency ward before receiving any medical care. The delay gave the acid ample time to devour her skin and reach deeper into the bone tissue.

Two years on from the assault, Piamba wears a mask over her half-burnt deformed mouth, a tube up her nose to prevent it from concaving, and a patch over her disfigured left eye, which was left with partial vision.

Piamba and her brother accuse Piamba's abusive ex-boyfriend of the attack which left her with third and fourth-degree burns. However, he maintains his innocence.

When she was attacked in 2010, Piamba was one of 55 women who were victims of acid attacks in Colombia that year, according to the country's National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences.

It's a crime that is on the rise. In the first four months of this year, 19 women have been attacked with acid in Colombia - more than during the same period in 2011.

Doctors and activists attribute many acid attacks to jealousy and revenge on the part of husbands, boyfriends and former lovers.

STALKED

Piamba left her ex-boyfriend, with whom she has a son, after two years of being hit and beaten by him. On one occasion he attacked her with a knife.

"Everyone always said what a charming and intelligent man he was. But at home, he was a totally different person," she said. "He used to tell me, 'If you're not mine then you're nobody else's'."

During their violent relationship, Piamba, fearing for her life, sought help from the police and judicial authorities on seven separate occasions - but to no avail.

"One official asked me what I'd done to provoke that behaviour. I was bounced around from one official to the next," she said.

During the five-month period between Piamba leaving her ex and the acid attack, she had an ominous, unshakeable feeling he would strike again.

"He stalked me. That day when he attacked me, he had been following me all day," she said.

Despite her strong spirit, Piamba said she has contemplated suicide, hitting rock bottom during a month long stay in hospital.

"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."

 But for the sake of her six-year-old son, she said she will keep on going.

"When my son saw me for the first time after the attack he told me, 'Mummy, let's kill this person who did this to you'. He said, 'When I'm older and have a job, I'll buy you special cream to heal your face'," Piamba said, her voice cracking.

Before the attack, Piamba scraped a living as a seamstress and street vendor selling drinks and snacks.

Her main concern now is getting a job.

"Who's going to give me a job looking like this?" she asked.

A warm, friendly woman, Piamba dreams of being a clothes designer.  

MACHO CULTURE

For plastic surgeon Dr Linda Guerrero, acid attacks are a reflection of the low status of women in Colombian society.

"This is a product of a macho culture. It's the most visible example of aggression against women," Guerrero told TrustLaw.

She co-founded the Burns Foundation, a clinic in Bogota, where she has reconstructed the disfigured faces, backs and necks of dozens of acid victims since the first acid attack case came to light in Colombia in 1997.

"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 what I want with her'," she explained.

Guerrero is scathing about the lack of adequate state health care for acid victims and the country's ineffective justice system.

"There's a chain of incompetence and failures by the police and investigators that leads to few convictions and the aggressor getting away. It's near total impunity," she said.

Under Colombian law, acid attacks are defined as personal injury, a crime that carries a maximum six-year prison sentence, with criminals sometimes allowed to serve their jail sentences under house arrest.

"You cannot justify giving a person who has attacked with chemicals no jail time. This should be seen as attempted murder," Guerrero said.

The recent spate of attacks has prompted a group of lawmakers to introduce a bill that would result in tougher punishments of up to 20 years in prison for those convicted of carrying out acid attacks. It would also introduce stricter controls on the sale of acid and better medical care for acid victims.

The bill is expected to be debated in Colombia's congress (lower house of parliament) later this year.

Bogota's mayor recently said he was considering plans to open a special centre for acid victims where they can receive medical and psychological care.

For Piamba, it's a glimmer of hope. But she has little faith in the justice system. Her ex-boyfriend still hasn't been arrested.

"I want this man to pay for what he did to me. I'd like to see him go to prison for life and do some hard labour. He's walking around freely making fun of the law,” she said.

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