By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, January 19th, 2016 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Acid attack survivors in Colombia hope a new law that punishes perpetrators of the crime with up to 50 years in prison will act as a deterrent in a country with high rates of acid attacks.
Until now most Colombians convicted of acid attacks have received prison sentences of up to six years, and some criminals have been allowed to serve their sentences under house arrest.
The law, which came into force on Monday, defines acid attacks as a specific crime and increases the maximum sentence to 50 years in jail for convicted offenders. It also aims to ensure acid victims receive better state medical care.
“With this law, people will think twice before committing this act,” Colombian acid attack survivor Natalia Ponce de Leon told local media after the law came into force.
Although acid attacks are most common in South Asia, Colombia reported one of the highest rates per capita in the world in 2012.
Since 2004, 526 women and 361 men have been attacked with acid across Colombia, according to the country’s National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences.
The new law was spearheaded by and named after Ponce, who was severely disfigured when a stalker hurled acid at her in 2014.
The sulphuric acid melted the skin on her face, neck, abdomen and legs, and left a quarter of her body burnt. The attack shocked the South American country.
The 34-year-old has undergone about 15 operations to reconstruct her face using artificial skin from the Netherlands.
Ponce said a key challenge is ensuring state health authorities provide the medical care acid attack victims are now entitled to under the new law. Victims often undergo months of reconstructive surgery and psychological therapy.
“We don’t want to see more people destroyed,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said at the presidential palace when signing the law on Monday.
Doctors and activists say many acid attacks are committed by jealous, vindictive husbands and boyfriends. They say Colombia’s macho culture condones violence against women and blames them for it.
Acid attacks survivors are often poor women with little education and a long history of domestic violence, women’s rights groups say.
About 1,500 acid attacks are reported globally each year, with women being the victims in 80 percent of cases, according to London-based charity Acid Survivors Trust International, which says the actual number is probably much higher since most victims are too scared to speak out.
While common in South Asia, acid attacks also occur in the Middle East and Latin America, where the Dominican Republic and Jamaica are hotspots for the crime.