“I would like to go to sleep today and not wake up tomorrow,” she said. “The truth is life is too hard and I am alone.”
A cheap and quick way of destroying a woman’s life, acid attacks in India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh have received widespread attention in recent years, with a documentary about victims in Pakistan winning an Oscar this year. While the gruesome assaults have been rare in the West, a rising number of attacks in Colombia has alarmed prosecutors and public health officials and terrified women. Dozens of such attacks, in which assailants soak their victims with sulfuric or nitric acids, are believed to take place here each year.
The precise reason for the spike here — and not in, say, neighboring Peru — is not known. But women’s rights advocates in Colombia talk about an epidemic of violence against women, from spouse-battering cases so extreme that they make the nightly news to reports of illegal armed groups using rape as a weapon in a murky rural conflict.
“Sometimes in the West we make fast judgments and say, ‘Look how terrible they treat women in the East,’ and we don’t look first at ourselves,” said Monica Roa, the Bogota-based international programs director of Women’s Link Worldwide, a rights group. “The violence here may be different, but it emanates from the same place. This is a culture where machismo reigns, where men do what they want to do.”
If a woman is attacked over a dowry in India or because she ventured outside without a veil in Pakistan, in Colombia a woman might be attacked because of sheer rage over her independence or even by a disturbed man she doesn’t know.
That’s what happened in 2004 to Maria Cuervo when a complete stranger shouted, “This is so you don’t think you’re so pretty” and drenched her face with acid.
Mostly, though, a jilted boyfriend or a husband intoxicated with jealousy is behind the attack.
“He had hit me because of jealousy, so I ended it,” Erica Vanessa Vargas, a slight, soft-spoken woman of 20, said of the day she ended her relationship with a boyfriend four years ago. “He then said, ‘If you’re not mine, than no one will have you.’ ”
Her former boyfriend paid a small boy $1.75 to throw acid at her — changing the course of a young life. “I stopped going to school, I can’t work, I can’t depend on my own self,” said Vargas, wearing a scarf to shield her scarred neck and chin.
Legal avenues and reform
The statistics on acid attacks are hazy in Colombia, as in other countries where they take place.
Bogota city councilwoman Olga Rubio, a victims’ advocate, said about 100 of the assaults have taken place so far this year across Colombia. It is a pace that would easily surpass last year’s total of 150.