Waking up at around midnight, Nila stretched out an arm, feeling for her
husband. But his side of the bed was empty. Sitting up, rubbing sleep from
her eyes, she saw him sitting in the corner of their bedroom.
“His eyes were bloodshot and his face was contortedwith anger. I’d never seen
him like that before,” says Nila, 19.
“I asked him what was wrong, but he didn’t answer. He stood up and walked
towards me – I thought he had a glass of water in his hand, which he then
poured over my head…”
But it wasn’t water he’d thrown over her – it was acid. Nila’s husband of just
a few weeks had purposely disfigured her because she’d dared to say she
wanted an education.
“The pain was unbearable, like my face and neck were on fire,” says Nila. “All
I could think was, why had my husband of a few weeks done this to me?”
After dousing her in acid, he locked her in the house. It was five hours
before anyone responded to her screams of agony. By then, her beautiful
features had been burnt beyond recognition.
The saddest thing is that Nila’s attack wasn’t a terrible one-off. In some
parts of the world, young women are regularly subjected to violent acid
attacks that leave them severely disfigured, disabled and in some cases even
The brutal reality
Belonging to a society in which women are expected to want nothing more than
to marry and have children, Nila’s dream of an education had enraged her
husband who strongly believed in the traditional values of Bangladesh, where
She’ll be reminded of his punishment for her ‘crime’ every time she sees her
scarred face in the mirror.
The men – and it is almost always men – who commit these crimes against women
often escape without retribution, their victims sometimes even believing
that their own ‘punishment’ was deserved.
When acid attacks happen in Britain it’s front-page news. In March 2008, model
Katie Piper, 27, was attacked in north London with industrial-strength
sulphuric acid, following her split from a man she’d met on the internet,
Daniel Lynch, 34.
It was the first time many of us had heard of and seen the devastating effects
an acid attack can have. However, in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Uganda, Pakistan
and Nepal it’s a fact of life for thousands of women.
There is hope, though. The British-based charity, Acid Survivors Trust
International (ASTI), aided by British medical volunteers, is working to
help survivors of attacks in these countries, but also to put an end to acid
violence against women.
Marianne Carter, a bubbly 30-year-old nurse from Manchester, has specialised
in caring for burns victims since 2002, but still struggles to comprehend
the brutality of these attacks.
“It’s horrifying to think that one person could do this to another. In many of
these countries, a woman’s looks are so valuable – and destroying them may
mean she never gets married, so her future can often be ruined too.”
Marianne says that as soon as she heard about the charity, she was keen to
“A colleague at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital told me about the
charity’s work in 2008,” says Marianne. “In the UK we’re so lucky to have
such good medical care, I wanted to help people who aren’t as fortunate.”
Marianne has visited the charity’s treatment centres in Pakistan, Bangladesh
and India, travelling with the charity during her holidays and working for
free. She admits that after nearly a decade of treating burns victims she’s
still shocked by their injuries.
“I’ve seen things you can’t begin to imagine,” she says. “When a person’s skin
is burnt, without the right immediate treatment, it will heal with a
contracture, which means it becomes very misshapen and tightens so it can’t
“I’ve seen women left so disfigured that their chins are attached to their
chests, their lips are burned away and the skin around their eyes is so
tight they can hardly blink.”
Many women, like Nila, are attacked by their husbands. Others have been burned
by their fathers or brothers for shaming their family in some way, or by a
love rival or someone who has a business gripe with their family.
ASTI volunteers work with local resources in the countries they visit.
Marianne is part of a burns rehabilitation team that provides care at
treatment centres and hospitals as well as teaching local medical staff how
to treat acid burns.
“I teach scar management,” says Marianne. “This includes massage therapy to
flatten scars, applying pressure dressings to stop blood rushing to scars,
and making them red and angry, and how to dress burns properly to prevent
“At first, I was nervous about how much I’d be able to help. For the first few
days we just observed how the centres ran and how their staff work, then we
fitted our skills around them. We didn’t want to barge in and take over.”
You’d imagine the women Marianne has met on her visits would be angry and
bitter about what has happened to them but, incredibly, the opposite is
true. She says: “I was shocked by how little they blame the person who
attacked them,” she says. “Some feel what happened was because of something
they did, as if, in some way, they are to blame.
“I found that hard to understand and deal with. Many of them haven’t been
brought up with the same sense of equality women in the UK have, which may
explain their lack of bitterness.”
The disfigurement and public shame also results in a loss of their position in
their community, with some women being forced into living as recluses.
Marianne continues: “I’ve seen how these women are looked at in the street as
if they are lepers. People stare, make comments and cross the road to avoid
them. Can you imagine going from being a happy, healthy young woman to a
social outcast, through no fault of your own?”
Marianne was nevertheless impressed by the strength of the young victims.
“They laugh and sing together, and have an amazing spirit,” she continues.
“I remember meeting a 21-year-old woman in Islamabad, Pakistan, called
Naieema, who had been widowed with two young daughters and was made to marry
her dead husband’s brother to protect the family land.
“But the man’s first wife was jealous and arranged for her nephew to throw
acid over Naieema while she slept.
“Most of her body was burnt, her face was destroyed and she was blinded.”
After the attack, Naieema’s daughters, who were five and two, were incredibly
frightened of how their mum looked.
“When I met Naieema, her eldest daughter Samina was with her at the treatment
centre having counselling to accept her mum’s disfigurement. But her younger
daughter had not been able to come to terms with it and was living with
extended family,” says Marianne.
“Blinded, disfigured and separated from her baby girl who was frightened of
her, I couldn’t believe Naieema was still able to smile and joke with me.
“I know that if I was in her situation, I wouldn’t have that strength of
Another British volunteer who has witnessed first-hand the courage of acid
attack victims is Ruthann Fanstone, a 39-year-old physiotherapist from
“I first got involved with ASTI in 1999, while I was in Bangladesh doing some
teaching at a hospital and met the charity’s founder, Dr John Morrison. When
he told me about the women he was helping, I knew I had to offer my skills,”
“In some of the countries we work in, there’s often a reluctance to give
victims pain relief. It just isn’t a priority, maybe because often it’s not
available. So people are expected to cope with pain that we’d never have to
deal with in the UK. But they never complain and they have no fear of facing
their injuries. It’s so humbling.
“I cared for Nila and she insisted on showing me a photo of what she used to
look like. She was so proud of how she once looked and seemed determined to
remember that. In Britain, girls her age complain if they get spots, but
Nila and others like her have had to find the strength to accept their
The women Marianne and Ruthann have treated are the lucky ones. Without the
help of ASTI, they’d only have received the most basic of medical care – if
any – then be sent home, some unable to walk or eat because of scarring,
some destined to die from infection.
Fighting for justice
The charity also offers legal help and works with local police to ensure
perpetrators are brought to justice. This crime is no longer brushed under
the carpet, its victims hidden away.
Ruthann, who is single, fits in volunteer work for ASTI around her home life
in Brighton. “I’ve visited Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Uganda,” she
says. “I go during holidays from my job for a couple of weeks at a time, and
I try to visit every four to six months.
“Once there, I treat patients and train local staff. The last time I was in
Pakistan, in 2009, I visited several hospitals, and on a trip to Uganda I
went out to villages to meet survivors and treat them.”
As well as the physical scars, women cared for by ASTI suffer psychological
damage caused by these violent attacks.
“Along with the shock and trauma, there is a sense of loss. A loss of their
looks and body confidence,” says Marianne.
“Overnight, they’ve been transformed from young, pretty women looking forward
to a happy life of marriage and motherhood, to being someone even their
closest friends and family can struggle to look at or touch. It’s impossible
to imagine the blow to their self-esteem and the psychological trauma that
transformation can cause.
“There’s also the loss of a marriage if it was their husband who attacked
them, or if they’ve been abandoned by him because of how they now look. For
some of these women, their entire futures have been destroyed.”
Alongside international organisations like the UN, ASTI is working to raise
the profile of acid violence across the world and ensure governments put in
place legislation that will bring to an end this appalling crime. Until
then, it’s the quiet dedication of volunteers like Ruthann and Marianne that
make a difference.
“If I come back from a trip feeling sad about what I’ve seen, or frustrated I
couldn’t do more, it’s good to be able to talk about it to my boyfriend Ewan
[32, a chef],” says Marianne.
“Of course, I have ‘normal’ holidays, too, when I lie on the beach – but I’m
happy to give up a couple of weeks a year to help. The truth is, I get as
much from it as the women I help.
“I only hope that there comes a time when women won’t be attacked and
disfigured in this way, and help from people like me won’t be needed.”
- For more information on ASTI, visit Acidviolence.org.
PHOTOGRAPHY: LIBI PEDDER HAIR AND MAKE-UP: LOUISE MEADOWS AND CAROLINE