Civil Society, Gender, Gender Violence, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Women in Politics

Gender Violence

Colombia Tightening Laws Against Acid Attacks

BOGOTÁ, Jul 11 2012 (IPS) - Nobody will ever know if Jhon Jairo Echenique decided to take his own life out of remorse, fear or mental illness. But the suicide followed his arrest for the stabbing and burning with acid of his 19-year-old former girlfriend Angélica Gutiérrez.

A law student, Gutiérrez was attacked at home. Neighbours took her to hospital where she died. Echenique, the prime suspect, was arrested in the Caribbean city of Cartagena de Indias in northern Colombia. Hours later, he used his shirt to hang himself in his cell.

Legislator Gloria Stella Díaz. Credit: Helda Martinez/IPS

The tragedy unfolded over the Jun. 30 – Jul. 1 weekend in Cartagena, a city of one million people where, so far this year, five women have been murdered and 213 injured in attacks, leading to the arrest of 196 men, according to police statistics.

Figures from the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) say that on average, 245 women suffer some form of violence every day making gender violence the most widespread form of human rights abuses.

One form of violence that is becoming increasingly common in this country is the throwing of acid or other corrosive substances on a woman’s face or other parts of her body, often leaving the victim so horribly disfigured that she has no hope ever of living a normal life.

“Perpetrators, often with malicious intent and cruelty, seek to leave a mark on their victims as a constant reminder of the reason why they were attacked – generally an incident prompted by jealousy, a separation, or similar conflicts that could have been solved peacefully,” legislator Gloria Stella Díaz tells IPS.

Díaz, who belongs to the Christian party, Movimiento Independiente de Renovación (Independent Movement for Complete Renovation or MIRA), has introduced a bill in parliament aimed at protecting citizens against acid attacks.

Acid attacks are not limited to domestic violence. In a recent case in Bogota, the victim, a teenage boy, suffered second- and third-degree burns in an attack classified as urban violence involving homeless persons.

Another recent case in Bogota was that of a woman attacking another whom she suspected of having an affair with her husband. The perpetrator was sentenced to nine years in prison.

“One (attack) was committed purely out of cruelty, and the other because the victim refused the aggressor money,” Díaz commented during an IPS interview.

“Victims of such attacks have now decided to speak out and are backing the bill with their signatures; they’re even willing to attend the parliament session to lend their support under the slogan ‘No More Silence; Punishment for the Perpetrators’,” Díaz said.

The initiative is part of a campaign called ‘Faces With No Traces of Impunity’  aimed  at changing  existing laws that treat acid attacks as personal injury offences meriting a nine-year sentence that can be reduced for good behaviour.

“With this bill we propose to change how this very serious crime is defined, classifying it as a separate offence that would allow harsher penalties and longer sentences,” Díaz said.

The bill proposes a minimum of 12 years in prison, for the act of throwing acid. But, if the target of the attack is a woman, a minor or a public figure whose livelihood depends on his or her image, the attacker could receive a sentence of up to 20 years.

“Another aim of the proposed law is for the state to implement a system of integral assistance services, including legal and psychological counselling, job placement and anti-discrimination campaigns. The state would cover the cost of reconstructive and plastic surgeries,” Diaz said.

In an effort to prevent such crimes from going unreported, the bill seeks to make it mandatory for hospitals or medical facilities, both public and private, to report all attacks to the police so that a criminal investigation can be initiated.

If the bill is passed into law, the sale of corrosive substances would also be controlled. This would mean that “when a crime (involving such substances) is reported in any city, it will be possible to establish who and where they were purchased, thus helping identify the perpetrators.”

The situation in Colombia is not as serious as in countries like Afghanistan or Pakistan, that led filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy to produce ‘Saving Face,’ a short documentary on the plight of two Pakistani women who were victims of acid attacks.

Diaz said she would like to see Obaid-Chinoy’s film which claimed an Oscar at this year’s awards. “It’s a very real tragedy,” she said, stressing that the situation needs to be addressed by all sections of society.

The bill, which has been approved in an initial session, must undergo three more before it can become law. Diaz is optimistic that it will be passed during the next legislative session that begins on Jul. 20.

“There’s political will and support from many sectors, including the attorney general’s office which has already appointed a prosecutor specialising in crimes of this type,” she said.

Media, she said, must also report acid attacks “with sensitivity, raising awareness for prevention and firmly supporting this initiative, so that aggressors will know that they will be punished. And it has to be done without sensationalism.”

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