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Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Power of Art Therapy to Change the Lives of Sexual Abuse Survivors

I am a new intern with SISHA (Southeast Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities), an anti trafficking and exploitation organization located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. SISHA is focused on investigating cases of labor and sexual exploitation; raiding bars and brothels; rescuing women and children from horrible abuse; helping survivors access after-care services, and assisting in legal cases for those women who desire to bring charges in court against offenders.

Last weekend, four people from SISHA, including myself, hopped into a tuk tuk bound for an art show at an after-care shelter for girls under the age of 18 who have been exploited and abused in the commercial sex trade. Run by Transitions Global at an undisclosed location, this facility is a model for how after-care shelters should be run. Girls are provided with a safe place to stay, nutritious food, counseling, vocational training, and access to education. Due to the nature of the abuse these young girls have suffered and the amount of work and time necessary to work towards physical and emotional healing, there are never more than 15-20 girls at the shelter at any one time. Transitions Global is also unique in their approach in that they ask each girl what they want to do with their lives (rather than simply passing down a mandate that each girl must learn sewing or another set trade) and then they go about working to get them the necessary training possible to make that a reality. The organization even has a “dream book” filled with scores of job possibilities to make it easier for the girls to choose what they want to do. Further, even though this shelter is for girls under 18, they are not tossed out onto the street after their 18th birthday. Instead, they are given the option of moving to another shelter designed specifically for adult survivors of the sex trade.

After getting lost twice, we eventually pulled up to a building surrounded by a high wall secured with a large lock. Ushered inside by a smiling Khmer woman, we were quickly welcomed by several excited girls, all in their early to mid teens, eager to show us the art projects they were so proud of. Looking around the room, I was amazed at the amount of creativity that had been released in the lives of young girls who had experienced such violence and abuse. The room was filled with photographs; jewelry made of gorgeous cloth and large, painted beads; painted clay sculptures, some done with such detail, including an adorable little dog; and pencil sketches. One of my favorite projects was a pink dollhouse made out of construction paper. The roof came off and as I peeked inside, I was blown away by the detail of this home. There was furniture made out of little boxes, a bed with a sleeping girl inside, pictures on the walls of dolphins and tigers (cut out of magazines), and even a vase filled with construction paper folded into tiny pink and yellow flowers.

We also had the opportunity to meet several young girls who introduced themselves with a smile and slight bow. After showing us their projects, they each pointed with pride to a picture of themselves hanging on the wall. There were pictures of over 20 girls, each one clothed in glittering and brightly colored traditional dress, along with gorgeous hair, makeup, and jewelry. It was such a brilliant idea, to take these girls to a professional photographer and give them the opportunity to be the center of attention and feel absolutely gorgeous and special, a feeling sorely missing among children who have been sexually abused.

Despite all the abuse these girls had suffered, there is still so much life and creativity inside each one of them. All it takes is someone willing to take the time to coax it out. For this project, that person was Ben, a 20-year-old volunteer from San Francisco. In Phnom Penh for over two months, he worked with the girls on variety of projects – sketching, sculpture, puppets, etc. Then he asked each girl to think about the project they would like to work on, how long it would take, and then create a schedule for their project's completion. Even though his experience was challenging due to language and cultural barriers, the end result of this art therapy program was nothing short of phenomenal.

Finally, after eating delicious spring rolls, fried chicken, and the most decadent cake (all created by girls at the shelter training to be chefs), one of the young girls showed us a video that she created, her very own autobiography. Then, in a very moving display, she went around the room and gave a small gift to each person in attendance. My box was light pink with a dark pink bow (my favorite color) and inside was a gorgeous bracelet of flowers and stars which the young girl next to me gently tied to my wrist. In her native tongue, this precious little gift-giver explained that she wanted to give us something so that we would all remember her, and in that way, her future would be bright and secure.

Though I can't speak for anyone else in attendance, I for one know that I will never forget these vivacious and spirited young girls who are a testament to the fact that horrific sexual abuse does not have to destroy a life forever. With love, compassion, and the proper physical and psychological care, sexual abuse survivors can heal in time. But that is only if people like you and me continue to support projects and organizations working to eradicate exploitation and trafficking; put pressure on our lawmakers to change laws and provide the proper financial and political support; and be willing to face this crime head on, rather than burying our heads in the sand. If we all do our part, in time, the future of sexual abuse survivors in Cambodia and around the world may in fact be bright and secure.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Natalia Estemirova: One of Chechnya's Brightest Lights Snuffed Out

Throughout history, brave men have risked their lives to stand against horrible injustices and evil threatening to destroy their family and country. Though women are often just as brave in these struggles, they have rarely received the recognition they deserve for their sacrifices and courage. This post and future ones like it therefore aim to highlight the work and lives of some truly amazing women who have been willing to give up everything for the chance to live in a country free from abuse, tyranny, and terror. Natalia Estemirova was one such woman.

Before discussing this extraordinary woman, however, it is first necessary to examine the political, military, and historical context in which she lived in order to better understand her actions and motivations.

Chechnya and Russia have long experienced a volatile relationship. In the 19th century, military forces of Russia's czar conquered the oil-rich Caucasus region. Years later, during World War II, Chechen forces were accused of conspiring with the Germans which resulted in swift action from Joseph Stalin who “dissolved the republic and ordered many of its people deported to Central Asia, to what is now Kazakhstan.” It is estimated that anywhere from 400,000 to 800,000 people were deported during this time, with 100,000 people dying due to the harsh conditions. With this action, the seeds of the last 60 years of tension between Moscow and Chechnya were sown, along with intense nationalism and anti-Russian sentiment. Though many of the Chechens exiled during the war died, survivors and their children returned to the region during the 1950s, and after Stalin died, “the republic was reborn in 1957.”

After the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, tensions between Chechnya and Russia began to intensify. The presence of a separatist movement in Chechnya began to grow and consequently, in 1994, the Kremlin began to assist the pro-Moscow opposition in Chechnya who were fighting the Dudayev regime. Russian President Boris Yelstin moved decisively and sent 40,000 Russian troops to remove Chechnya's President Dudayev and “prevent the region from breaking away.” However, while Yelstin believed this mission could be accomplished quickly since his Russian military outnumbered the rebels, it actually “escalated into a bloody 13-month war” that ultimately destroyed Chechnya's capital of Grozny and resulted in the deaths of anywhere between 30,000 to 100,000 people. In retaliation, Chechen rebels “staged a number of devastating attacks on the soldiers.” In August 1996, the two sides managed to agree to a ceasefire that “left Chechnya essentially autonomous,” but not before the Russian army gained control of many of the urban areas in Chechnya while the rebels controlled the mountainous regions in the south, and Dudayev was killed in a Russian rocket attack.

Under the conditions of the ceasefire, presidential and parliamentary elections were held in Chechnya in January 1997. Alsan Maskhadov, the separatist army leader, won the election and began a time in power “marked by chaos and lawlessness.” For the next three years, kidnappings, assassination attempts, bombings, and the illegal tapping of oil pipelines crossing Chechnya were all commonplace. A few weeks later, almost 300 people were killed in several bombings in a Moscow shopping mall and two apartment blocks; bombings that the Kremlin blamed on Chechen terrorists under the government of Maskhadov. Consequently, Russia began bombing targets inside Chechnya by late September 1999; Russian planes, tanks, and troops were all present inside Chechnya by the end of the month.

Though it is impossible to determine the exact number of Chechens killed throughout these conflicts, it is safe to say that tens of thousands have died. Further, approximately 400,000 live in refugee camps in next-door Ingushetia as a result of the years of fighting, damages, and danger.

In May 2000, President Putin proclaimed that Russia would rule Chechnya and he appointed Akhmad Kadyrov, a former construction worker and Muslim cleric who was originally a separatist but eventually joined the pro-Moscow side, to lead the government in Chechnya. Separatists soon began a series of attacks against Russian targets including bombings and the murder of hostages in theaters and schools. Kadyrov (along with several other people) was killed in May 2004 at a soccer stadium by a bomb planted by Chechen separatists.

In August 2004, Interior Minster Alu Alkhanov (Moscow's preferred candidate) was elected by voters to be the new president of Chechnya. A few days after the election, on Sept. 2, 2004, an event that many people still remember took place in Beslan, southern Russia. On that day, militants armed with weapons entered a school and took more than 1,200 hostages, including hundreds of children, in a siege that lasted for three days. They also set up bombs throughout the school and when they went off, the hostage-takers began shooting at those attempting to escape. Russian troops then entered the school. After the exchange of gunfire stopped, several hundred people were dead, more than half of which were children. The following year, the leader of the Chechen rebels, Aslan Maskhadov, was killed during a “special operation” conducted by the Russian army.

Despite ceasefires and the official end to conflict, the situation has not drastically improved. For example, in articles written this year, select journalists continue to stress the fact that despite the official end of Russia's 10-year counter-terrorist operations, “conditions continue to deteriorate, not only in Chechnya, but across the entire North Caucasus region.” Violence, intimidation, violations of freedom of expression, and the deaths, harassment and imprisonment of journalists and human rights defenders continue.

Chechnya is plagued by a volatile and worsening security situation. Separatist groups still clash intermittently with government forces and (President of Chechnya) Kadyrov's regime has been accused of pervasive human rights abuses, including torture and killings. This violence has also spread to neighbouring Ingushetia and Dagestan. There are few investigations into attacks and even fewer prosecutions, leading to a widespread culture of impunity.”

Natalia Estemirova was a human rights activist who lost her life due to her tireless advocacy on behalf of those experiencing horrific abuses. Though her murder was widely reported throughout the international media and human rights organizations, her murderers are still walking free since investigations are ineffective, prosecutions are almost non-existent, and political will to crack down on these murders are just a pipe dream.

On July 15, 2009, at 8:30 in the morning, Natalia Estemirova was grabbed by men as she left her apartment in Grozny. As she was being shoved into a car, Estemirova yelled out that she was being kidnapped, but onlookers were too scared to report what they had seen. Within a few hours, the woman who risked her life to tell the world about what was happening in Chechnya was dead, murdered like so many of the people for whom she spent her life attempting to get justice. Her body was found with three bullets in her chest and one in her head, along with “a mark from a man's hand on her shoulder, where she was grabbed, and a bruise on her face, where she had been hit. Her wrists bore the marks of bindings.”

Viewed by the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, as an enemy, Natalia Estemirova spent her adult life attempting to hold the government accountable for horrible crimes:

She documented hundreds of similar cases in Chechnya, supplying witness statements and photographs, forcing prosecutors to investigate and the media to write about kidnappings, torture and killings, often conducted by people in official uniforms.”

Predictably, the murder of Estemirova failed to make much of a splash in Russian newspapers, long known for their silence on murders like hers. It is only through a small group of national and international media sources and human rights groups that the world knows about the life and death of this brave woman who started out as a history teacher but soon transformed into a beacon of hope in the face of Chechnya’s two wars and their aftermath. No longer content to teach history, she instead attempted to change it.

Born to a Chechen father and a Russian mother in 1959, Estemirova moved to Chechnya when she was 19. Despite extreme poverty and Stalin’s deportation of the entire Chechen population in 1944, “separatist and even nationalist feelings were weak” in Chechnya while Estemirova was growing up. Grozny was still a “predominantly Russian” city where the “Chechen language and culture were suppressed.” Everything changed, however, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. When General Jokhar Dudayev came to power in Chechnya in 1991, Estemirova at first wanted nothing to do with his “nationalist rhetoric.” By 1994, however, the Kremliin “decided to dislodge Mr. Dudayev with tanks and bombs,” an action that Estemirova and many others viewed as occurring without any justification.

In October 1999, Estemirova was riding on a bus when she witnessed Russian rockets exploding next to a maternity hospital, in a crowded market, and a water collection area near a mosque. She saw the blood-covered body of a young man who she said had “nothing to do with rebels.” Within a few days, Estemirova traveled to Moscow where she “publicly confronted military officials” who in turn “claimed that the attack on the market was aimed only at rebels.” This was at a time when Russia, under Putin, had initiated a second, longer war against Chechnya. Rocket attacks were soon “followed by 'mopping up' operations, often accompanied by killings, rape and the burning of houses.”

It is important to note that Estemirova did not take sides when reporting on human rights abuses – she documented the actions of Russian forces, as well as the actions of pro-Moscow Chechen forces, and Chechen separatist rebels – because all parties to the conflict have committed horrible human rights abuses. The words of Estemirova herself describe her experiences of monitoring and documenting human rights abuses during this conflict, as well as after the end of official hostilities:

I remember going to the village of Aldi on March 20th 2000. It was dead. We counted 47 victims, but of course there were more ...A woman was hanging up bloodstained clothes left from her husband, who had been executed...People were in shock and would talk only in whispers...I remember walking over the bridge together with Aldi's villagers and a boy walking in front of us. And some sniper, bastard, started shooting.”

After visiting the mountain village of Rigakhoi in April 2004 after it had been bombed by Russian forces, Estemirova described this disturbing scene:

They bombed it knowing it was a family house, that children's nappies were drying on the line, that sheep were wandering about. Inside there was a woman with five children. When they started bombing, she gathered them all around, because that is how they were found--she must have tried to cover them with her arms.”

Estemirova photographed these children, aged nine months to five years, as evidence since prosecutors refused to go to the village to see for themselves.

Though the atrocities she witnessed outraged her, Estemirova continued to tirelessly investigate the actions of all parties to the conflict. Even after the war ended, however, her work did not, especially considering the huge number of disappearances carried out, namely at the hands of Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen forces. In March 2005, Human Rights Watch produced a comprehensive report discussing enforced, widespread, and systematic disappearances in Chechnya. As of 2005, between 3,000 and 5,000 people have “disappeared” since 1999.

As with the kidnapping and murder of Estemirova, disappearances rarely lead to in-depth investigations by police and prosecutors and perpetrators are rarely held accountable for their crimes. Men, women, and teenagers alike are disappeared and their bodies are often rarely found. Further, interviews with people who were eventually released after being held in detention centres “strongly suggests that torture in custody is rampant in Chechnya.” Examples include being held for days in unheated cells, having a plastic bag placed over their head, injection with unknown drugs, beatings, and broken bones. For those who are not murdered, the end result is often shock and psychological trauma.

After the horrors in Beslan, the idea of detaining relatives of suspected terrorists was brought forward in Russia. Though this plan was struck down in Moscow, in Chechnya it was not. Some of the people who have disappeared “were members of known or suspected rebels's families...Yet most were ordinary young people who caught the wrong eye, or were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Further, it is suspected that when people are being tortured, they “may incriminate innocent people, who are in turn snatched and tortured.” Hence, a vicious cycle of kidnapping, torture and death have long existed.

In the words of Lindsey Hilsum, “Only the bravest journalists report from Chechnya - the chances of being kidnapped are high, while the cold, lack of electricity and general misery of the place make it difficult to work in.” Yet this is the environment where Estemirova lived, worked, and eventually died.

Estemirova was one of the few activists brave enough to live and work in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, where she “ran a courageous and lonely campaign to hold Chechnya's Kremlin-backed government to account.” The people who came to her for help were always in desperate need of someone to stand up for them and included mothers searching for “disappeared” sons, torture survivors, and women who had been beaten publicly. In addition to monitoring and reporting on human rights abuses, she was also a source of comfort and encouragement to all the people who came to her for help. As a friend of Anna Politkovskaya, Estemirova was acutely aware of the risks she faced in becoming another casualty. And on that fateful day in July 2009, that is exactly what happened.

In the words of C.J. Chivers, a journalist who personally knew Estemirova,

She was compassionate, meticulous, gritty, patient and driven at once, possessed of a strong stomach and light touch...To the families whose pain she worked to relieve and whose stories she forced the world to see, she was a resolute champion. To the men whose crimes she exposed, case by case, with a quiet composure, she was a confounding enemy, a feminine nemesis they could neither fathom nor dissuade.”

Estemirova bravely interviewed both gunmen and victims throughout her work. She searched for and found those who had been imprisoned, sought out hidden graves, and built cases through meticulous gathering of evidence. She did all of this in an attempt to ensure that perpetrators of atrocities were held accountable for their actions and rampant abuses finally ceased. Further, Estemirova worked tirelessly even when state-controlled television stations refused to broadcast the evidence she discovered and when most Russian journalists avoided her since “her truths were not welcome.” Yet, she continued to investigate and report, bringing the evidence she gathered directly to prosecutors and requesting investigations. Importantly, she did not let bias rule her work, instead, she searched for, checked, and proclaimed the facts, having been trained at one point as a historian. Rather than make judgments, she meticulously documented the suffering of the people around her, as well as the crimes of perpetrators partly in the hope that Russia would address these crimes and make positive changes. However, the Russian government was not interested in what Estemirova had to say.

Her work even lead, more than once, to her being “summoned to official meetings” where those in power, including President Kadyrov, told her in no uncertain terms to stop her work. This is especially terrifying considering the fact that according to Estemirova's records, Kadyrov lead a government that ran torture centers where “detainees were subjected to beatings, stompings, electric shocks, mock executions, sodomy, burnings by gas torch and, in the end, for some, execution.” According to survivors, Kadyrov gladly participated in these activities. Further, many people who disappeared were never seen again, while the remains of some bodies have been discovered with “limbs broken, faces smashed, skin charred, heads and torsos shattered by bullets fired at close range.” Scores of cases like these were researched and documented by Estemirova, even though almost no one was ever charged for these atrocities.

Finally, even though she lived in a regime where fear and violence were daily constants, everyone who knew Estemirova knew that the only thing powerful enough to stop her would be death. And even though Estemirova knew that was a real possibility, she refused to be deterred; she refused to put her own life above the safety and lives of the people around her.

With her death, two important questions must be asked and answered. First, who killed Natalia Estemirova? It is imperative that an in-depth investigation be conducted into her murder and the perpetrators prosecuted and given severe prison sentences. This will send the necessary message that kidnapping and executing human rights defenders, journalists, and others brave enough to speak out will not be tolerated in Chechnya. Second, who will replace Estemirova in investigating and documenting the abuses carried out by Russia, pro-Moscow Chechen forces, and Chechen separatists? Her death has created a vacuum that must be filled. If human rights violations in Chechnya are met with silence, atrocities will only intensify and the people of Chechnya will continue to suffer unimaginable horrors.

The death of Natalia Estemirova, along with other brave activists and journalists silenced like hers, must not go unnoticed. The only way to truly honour their sacrifice is to continue speaking out against abuses in Chechnya until they stop forever.


Tariq Yasin, “Chechen Chagrin,” Harvard International Review vol.24, no.1 (2002):6-7.

Russia's horror - Russia's horror; After Beslan,” The Economist vol.372, no.8392 (2004): 9-10.

The war after the war: Chechnya's disappeared,” The Economist vol.374, no.8419 (2005): 44.

Indepth: Chechnya,” CBC News Online (July 10, 2006).

Anup Shah, “Crisis in Chechnya,” (September 4, 2004), (accessed July 23, 2010).

Chechnya,” (accessed October 18, 2010).

Lindsey Hilsum, “The conflict the west always ignores,” New Statesman vol. 133 (January 26, 2004): 24.

Agn├Ęs Callamard, “Human rights abuses still blight North Caucasus,” The Guardian (May 9, 2010),

Ann Cooper, “A Difficult Journey from Repression to Democracy,” Nieman Reports vol. 60, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 48-49.

War and peace through the bravest eyes; Natalia Estemirova on Chechnya,” The Economist vol. 392, issue 8641 (July 25, 2009): 23-24.

Worse than a War: 'Disappearances' in Chechnya – A Crime Against Humanity.” Human Rights Watch (March 2005).

Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova, “Russia's Olympic Fear,” Newsweek vol. 156, no. 5 (2010).

Adrian Bloomfield, “Natalya Estemirova: a life stalked by danger,” (July 15, 2009), (accessed October 22, 2010).

C.J. Chivers, “A Fearless Activist in a Land of Thugs,” The New York Times (July 17, 2009).

Friday, September 17, 2010

Another Night in Bangkok: Pictures of Brutal Gang Rape Become Facebook Entertainment

Facebook is a place to connect with friends, keep people updated on events going on in your life, and share photos of happy memories. However, for a group of young people in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, Facebook became a tool to share pictures of a brutal attack on a 16-year-old girl who was allegedly drugged and gang raped at a recent house party. According to the police investigating this case, the young woman “suffered significant injuries” from “an aggressive series of assaults involving between five and seven males that lasted 20 minutes.”

So far, only one arrest has been made in this case – that of a male young offender who allegedly took photos of the attack and posted them on Facebook. He now faces charges related to the production and distribution of child pornography. According to the RCMP, the gang rape occurred early last Saturday morning in a field outside of a house hosting a rave titled “Another Night in Bangkok." Superintendent Dave Walsh said that this was a private house party “attended by a large number of youth” in Pitt Meadows, 40 km east of Vancouver. Another article on this story stated that hundreds of young people and adults were at this party. It was not until Sunday that the police learned of the attack when someone came to them and reported that photos of the victim being raped had been posted on Facebook.

There are so many issues to address in this horrible story. First, the fact that this gang rape happened at all is heart-breaking. The thought of this young girl drugged, raped by seven young men, all alone after being separated from her friends, and unable to fight back due to the effects of the drugs are almost too much to comprehend. Added to the rapes themselves are the additional humiliation of being photographed while being attacked and then the pictures posted on the Internet for anyone to see and download. Further, there were comments posted on Facebook along with the photos that suggested the young woman was a willing participant. According to police, this is completely false: all the physical and medical evidence indicate that this is a case of a large number of men sexually assaulting one woman.

Can you even imagine being raped and then having to face the fact that people were downloading pictures of your pain and then posting insensitive and false comments? It is no wonder that Ridge Meadows RCMP Sgt. Jennifer Hyland, who is leading the investigation into the rapes, said that the young woman is not doing too well, especially in light of the additional burden of the widespread circulation of the photos that are “spreading like wildfire” on the Internet. The fact that these pictures are available to anyone has made it especially difficult for police to assist this young woman begin to overcome the effects of these rapes.

Police officers are “angry and disgusted” at the large number of people who are downloading and sharing graphic pictures of this brutal attack and they have pleaded with the public to stop. Hyland underscored the horror of this attack and the subsequent events in this case when she said, “I’ve been involved in investigating sexual assaults for many years. In that time, I’ve never experienced anything like what is occurring in this investigation...The very public discussion about this victim and the taking and subsequent sharing of photos depicting this rape is disgusting, morally corrupt and criminal.”

After the attack, the young woman required medical attention. At the same time as she was receiving this medical care, the pictures of the gang rape were being posted on Facebook; they were removed on Sunday after police were notified. However, despite their removal, “copies have been downloaded and have since gone into circulation.” The fact that these pictures continue to be viewed and shared is reprehensible. Since I could not find the words to express my outrage, I have included the sentiments of Sgt. Hyland:

“I want to be clear about this: What happened after this incident and continues to happen is beyond disgusting. Those photos are child pornography. They have been viewed, shared, saved and re-posted numerous times. This is an offence and is so socially corrupt it is sickening...The posting and viewing of photos is continuing to victimize the young girl and her family and needs to stop.”

Further, in addition to the horrific and long-term this attack has had and will continue to have on the young woman who was gang raped, other young people have been traumatized after they were shown pictures of the attack. According to police, they have received complaints from several parents whose children have come home crying and quite upset after they saw the pictures.

As mentioned above, only the photographer has been arrested at the time of this post; however, the police have stated they have leads on some of the other alleged rapists. Further, according to Const. Aaron Lloyd, the photos taken of the attack will help police identify and arrest some of the other participants in the rapes.

At this point, it is early in the investigation and police are still in the process of talking to everyone who attended the rave. However, this process has been hindered by the lack of cooperation from some. In light of their need for as much information as possible, police are urging anyone with information regarding this gang rape to come forward.

Anyone with information regarding this incident is asked to contact Ridge Meadows RCMP at 604-463-6241. Those who want to remain anonymous can call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.


Andrea Woo, “Rave Gang-Rape Photos Put on Web, Police Say,” Vancouver Sun (September 16, 2010), (accessed September 16, 2010).

Gerry Bellett, Andrea Woo, and Tiffany Crawford, “Photos of Teen's Gang Rape Go Viral on Internet,” Vancouver Sun (September 17, 2010) (accessed September 17, 2010).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Acid Burning: The Destruction of a Woman's Body and Soul


Much like other forms of violence against women, acid burning is an extremely personal attack against a woman’s body and soul. And while most forms of violence involve long-term psychological and/or physical consequences, most cuts and bruises fade with time, even though the memories rarely ever do. Acid burning, on the other hand, leaves a visible and tangible reminder of an attack spurred by rage and hate. And in countries where a woman’s chance for a good life depends on her being a wife and mother, the deformity caused by acid burning is especially cruel.

In countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, an alarming number of cases have been reported where men, often angry over a rejected marriage proposal or motivated by a desire to punish a woman for a real or supposed transgression, throw acid into her face, scarring her for life. While the immediate and long-term physical and mental agony of this crime is enough to create a public outcry, women who endure this form of violence are also almost always condemned to live life as an outcast, due to their disfigured appearance and subsequent lack of marriageability in a society that values women based on their position as wife and mother.

Bangladesh is one country where acid violence is common, usually due to disagreements over dowries, refusing a proposal of love or marriage, and disputes over land. Women who survive these attacks must spend the rest of their lives severely disfigured since acid melts skin and sometimes even dissolves bones. Further, since many men will not marry a woman who is disfigured in this way, perpetrators have discovered a sadistically successful way to dominate women and render their lives worthless. It is therefore important to stress at this point that it must become a priority of men and women all over the world to realize that a woman is worth so much more than what she looks like on the outside.

It is disturbing to note that acid attacks are on the rise in Bangladesh and that women burned with acid rarely receive justice. Beena is one such young woman. Eighteen months after 14-year-old Dano threw acid on her when she was 16, the perpetrator remained free. Beena’s family believes that the police were paid off to look the other way in this case. However, this brings up an important question: “Why does the government not act to stop the crime and why do the police seem reluctant to prosecute the alleged attackers?” One answer comes from a plastic surgeon at Bangladesh’s only Burn Unit:

There is a law in our country, but the law is not applied to the people who are throwing acid. Maybe the people who are throwing the acid are very influential in society so the police, the law officers, they cannot go to them and the poor victims, they are not getting any help from their administration, from the police, I think so. That's why the incidents are progressing more quickly in the absence of the law.”

Despite the fact that in 2002, Bangladesh introduced the death penalty for those convicted of the crime of throwing acid, there still remain many limitations to prosecution of perpetrators. Acid is cheap and easy to access, there is a lack of awareness of the existing laws among the general public, the judicial system is often corrupt, and there is weak enforcement of laws prohibiting this crime. Despite these shortcomings, many non-governmental organizations do assist survivors in accessing medical and mental treatment in their communities.

While this help from community organizations is invaluable, more must be done to prevent these acts from taking place in the first place. It is imperative that society’s views and attitudes towards women change immediately and dramatically. As long as men view women as objects or disposable property that can simply be destroyed and thrown away at the slightest provocation, acid burnings and other heinous forms of violence against women will continue. In addition, the strong and unbiased enforcement of laws, decisive prosecution and punishment of perpetrators, and the sensitive handling of these cases in the media are all integral steps in reducing and ultimately eradicating this crime.


Due to the serious nature of acid burning attacks, many women do not survive, while the women who do survive their injuries live the rest of their lives in constant pain.

Women in several provinces in India have experienced acid burnings at the hands of former lovers who can not handle the end of the relationship. One of the most vicious attacks occurred in Delhi in 2006 when a mother of three children died after her former lover poured acid all over her body and then forced her to drink the liquid. It is clear from the nature of these attacks that they are carried out by men who hate their victim and desire revenge in the most extreme form. Further, most of these attacks are carried out in a well-planned manner after following their victim for a few days and they have full knowledge of the consequences of their actions.


In 2008, Nicholas Kristof wrote an article in The New York Times that examined the increasing prevalence of throwing acid on women in several Asian countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, as well as the accompanying lack of attention this crime receives due to women’s inferior status in many parts of this region. Kristof terms this type of attack that leaves women deformed for life as “terrorism that’s personal.” The majority of cases of acid attacks are motivated by a desire to terrorize or dominate their victims and perpetrators are rarely prosecuted because “women usually don’t matter in this part of the world.”

Kristof’s interviews with Naeema Azar and Shahnaz Bukhari in Pakistan illustrate the reality and agony of acid attacks for thousands of women in parts of Asia since the mid-1990s. Before being attacked with acid by her ex-husband, Azar was an attractive mother of three who worked as a real estate agent to support her family. After the attack, she wears a large black cloak over her head and face in order to conceal her missing ears, eyelids, and face with hardly any skin left, only bone. Even though Azar has received six grafts using skin from her leg, she is still unable to close her eyes or mouth, making eating in front of others impossible since it is too embarrassing to have others witness the food falling out of her mouth as she chews. Further, as Azar is now blind, her 12-year-old son must lead her around everywhere she goes.

In addition to the life-long after-effects, the attack itself is forever etched into Azar’s memory, along with that of her children who witnessed the attack. After the divorce (which her ex-husband had agreed to) was final, he came over to say good-bye to the children. Then, according to Azar and her son, he pulled out a bottle of acid and poured it all over his ex-wife’s face. Immediately, Azar began screaming as all the skin on her face began to fall off, revealing the bone underneath, and smoke from her burning skin spiraled around her body. Unable to see and in indescribable agony, Azar ran around wildly and crashed into walls. To add insult to injury, Azar’s ex-husband disappeared after the attack and has never been arrested or punished for his despicable actions.

Since there are many more women like Azar throughout Pakistan, activist Shahnaz Bukhari founded an organization called the Progressive Women’s Association to assist survivors of acid attacks. For Azar, the organization is raising money for a lawyer to strongly encourage police to prosecute her ex-husband and to pay for surgery that might possibly, in the hands of an extremely experienced surgeon, be able to restore sight to one of her eyes.

Bukhari has also documented 7,800 cases cases of women who have been deliberately “burned, scalded or subjected to acid attacks” in the Islamabad area since 1994. One factor that may contribute to this high number of acid attacks is the ease with which most people can walk into a shop in much of Asia and buy sulfuring or hydrochloric acid – substances that will destroy a human face. Further, since most victims of these attacks are poor and female, they are virtually voiceless in their society. It is therefore imperative that people throughout the world realize what is happening and help survivors claim their voice.

Huma, 22, is one woman in Pakistan who did receive help and has begun to heal from a horrific 2004 acid attack. One night as she slept outside in the courtyard of her home, a man named Rizwan, 26, threw acid on her face as revenge for her family’s refusal of his marriage proposal. In an interview with IRIN, Huma, though still quite reluctant to discuss her ordeal, said “I just remember feeling something hot on my face, and then the searing pain that followed.” After hearing of her plight, a local philanthropist who has chosen to remain anonymous paid for her treatment and cosmetic surgery in Islamabad. Due to the numerous operations carried out over the course of several months, two years after her attack, Huma was able to look at her own reflection in the mirror and smile.

In order to assist the large number of women in Pakistan like Human who have been disfigured by acid attacks, a new chain of beauty salons have been established. Collaboration between Italian charity Smile Again (which already works with women in India and Bangladesh) and Depilex beauty salons have resulted in the provision of reconstructive plastic surgery for survivors of acid attacks in Pakistan. Under this program, doctors from Italy and France fly into Lahore or Islamabad to perform surgeries. The network of salons also assists burn victims to find a nearby Smile Again centre since many of the survivors do not have the money to travel to major cities or abroad to receive the necessary treatment. In addition to the treatment and rehabilitation offered at these salons, Depilex owner Musarrat Misbah hopes that the salons will also serve as a safe place and support groups for survivors. Further, Depilex also provides vocational training to acid attack survivors in the hope that they will then be able to leave the abusive conditions that lead to the attack in the first place.

Another initiative designed to minimize the effects of acid attacks is to raise public awareness about what to do immediately after being burned. For example, some women do not realize the important of washing the area right after being attacked in order to dilute the acid. The story of Zarina Ramzan perfectly illustrates the need for more education for women in this area:

It was like burning in hell…I didn't even know acid had been poured on me, let alone that washing it with water would have minimised the damage…The doctor there told me if I had washed the acid away immediately, it would not have penetrated so deep.”

It took Zarina six hours to reach the hospital in southern Punjab. Since then, she has had to endure 11 plastic surgery operations and doctors say she still needs several more.

According to Sameena Afzal, chief coordinator of the Depilex Smile Again organization, “It is very difficult to find definite statistics. But we know the number is high. I have 150 acid and stove burn victims registered with me at the moment for treatment.”

Though it must be stressed that acid attacks comprise only a small number of all cases of violence against women in Pakistan, the fact that these cases are increasing, widespread impunity exists for perpetrators, and the infliction of life-long debilitating effects for victims all necessitate an examination of this phenomenon separate from other forms of violence against women. However, it is also important to note that acid attacks must be understood within the context of the wider issue of violence against women throughout the world. The fact that women are viewed as subordinate and inferior in many countries in Asia where acid burnings occur is a factor that must not be overlooked. It is much easier to destroy “something” you do not consider to be human.

While it is difficult to determine the exact number of women who have been attacked with corrosive acid, hundreds of cases were recorded in the first part of this decade in Pakistan alone. However, numbers do not tell the whole story. Women who have been burned with acid often experience a lifetime of physical and psychological pain. To better understand the consequences of acid attacks, please go to This site features pictures the burned faces of women who have been attacked with acid. Please be advised that these photographs are very difficult to look at. However, I have included this link because I think it is extremely important that the world see the pain in the faces of women whose only crime was refusing a marriage proposal or romantic advance, requesting a divorce, or committing some other perceived slight against men who believe it is their right to destroy women.


“Bangladesh: Beena's Story,” Insight News TV (Produced by Ron McCullagh), (accessed July 23, 2010).

Bangladesh Burning: Growing Acid Violence Against Women.” (January 8, 2010). (accessed July 23, 2010).

Acid attacks are a form of revenge.” (November 20, 2006). (accessed July 23, 2010).

Kristof, Nicholas D. “Terrorism That’s Personal.” The New York Times (November 30, 2008). (accessed July 23, 2010).

Pakistan: Acid Burn Victims Smile Again.” IRIN (April 24, 2006). (accessed July 23, 2010).

Sahar Ali. “Help for Pakistan’s Acid Attack Victims.” BBC (accessed July 23, 2010).

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Stoning: Honour Killing by the State

Urgent: Possible Stoning This Week of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani 1

Future posts will discuss honour killings in more depth, but since there is a woman on death row in Iran facing possible execution tomorrow, I decided that I will focus on a barbaric and medieval form of honour killing sanctioned by the state of Iran: stoning.

There have been several recent newspaper articles involving a woman in Iran who was convicted of having an “illicit relationship” in 2006, convicted of adultery later that year, and then sentenced to be stoned for her “crime” of adultery. Though the sentence created an international uproar, one Iranian government official stressed that their decision would not be swayed by international pressure.

On August 12, 2010, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani appeared on state television in what some women's rights critics dismissed as government propaganda. During the interview, the Iranian mother of two expressed displeasure towards her lawyer for bringing her case to public attention as that had “brought shame on her family.” During the broadcast she said “Why did you publicize my case? Why did you harm my reputation and dignity? Not all of my relatives and family members knew that I am prison. Why did you do this to me?”

However, since Ashtiani had previously denied the charges of adultery, the International Committee Against Stoning, a human rights group dedicated to publicizing her case, called the TV show “toxic propaganda.” In other words, they felt that she had been pressured, coerced, or threatened into making the claims she made on television. Further, her lawyer and children claim that her conviction was based on false evidence.

According to her statements on television, Ashtiani began a relationship with her husband's cousin who subsequently killed her husband. The head of the judiciary of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province asserted that Ashtiani was the one who injected the anaesthetic into her husband before the cousin inserted wires into the victims' neck and killed him with electricity. However, it is interesting to note that it is unclear what punishment, if any, the cousin received. On the other hand, Ashtiani has already received 99 lashes after being convicted of having an “illicit relationship” and committing adultery with two men; a crime (along with murder, rape, armed robbery, apostasy and drug trafficking) that is punishable by death under Sharia law. It is also interesting to note that there is no mention of whether or not the two men that Ashtiani was convicted of having affairs with were ever arrested, convicted, or given lashes for their part in the “illicit relationship.” Further, Ashtiani was not sentenced to death by stoning for her alleged role in her husband's murder; that case was closed. Instead, she has been sentenced to a horrific form of death, along with a recent “mock” execution (which, in my opinion, is terrifying and amounts to psychological torture) for her alleged acts of adultery.

At one point, Mohammad Mostafaei, Ashtiani's lawyer, said that his client would probably avoid the punishment of stoning due to the international pressure and outrage over this sentence. However, a recent article in the Globe and Mail highlighted the fears of Ashtiani's lawyer and son who said that she may be stoned on Thursday or Friday, at the end of Ramadan (according to Islamic law, executions can resume at this point) since “The possibility of stoning still exists, any moment...Her stoning sentence was only delayed; it has not been lifted yet.”

Due to the injustice of this sentence and the fact that women in Iran still face death by stoning for committing adultery (regardless of how flimsy the evidence), Heather Reisman, the CEO of Indigo Books & Music, began a campaign to free Ashtiani through the circulation of an online petition and more recently, a letter “appealing directly to senior clerics in Iran” on the basis that there were “irregularities in her case, including the fact that she has been punished for her alleged crime.” This letter was written in consultation with experts in sharia law “in the hope of persuading clerics to pardon the woman within the Iranian legal system.” Approximately 300,000 people have signed the petition to free this wrongly imprisoned woman. If you would like to add your voice please go to

It is important to note, however, that there are issues surrounding this case that go far beyond the life of Ashtiani (though even if this was “only” about one life, it would still be of urgent importance) presently in prison waiting to be killed at the hands of men who will hurl stones at her. First, there has been a deafening silence from many in the international community surrounding stoning and other customs deemed cultural in Iran and elsewhere. This is unacceptable; custom, culture, religion, and tradition must all take a back seat to the just and humane treatment of women.

Further, according to a recent article by Margaret Wente, there are a number of people who are presently in Tabriz prison where Ashtiani continues to be held, including women, “children, adolescents and 18 people who've been sentenced to hang for homosexuality.” According to Maryam Namazie, an Iranian human rights campaigner who now lives in London, 200 death row cases are in Tabriz prison; 35 are women facing death by stoning. Examples include Maryam Baagherzaade and Azar Bagheri.

Baagherzaade is 25-years-old and has spent the last four years in prison. The only reason she is still alive is because she got pregnant while she was on a short leave from prison: “the regime usually waits to kill pregnant women until after they've had their babies.”

In the case of 19-year-old Bagheri, any illusion of justice disappeared when she was arrested, convicted of having sex outside of marriage, and sentenced to death when she was 15. This is an age when girls in Canada are not yet allowed to get their driver's licences. Further, this sentence was passed after she had been forced into marriage when she was only 14; soon after, her husband “pressed charges against her, claiming that she didn't love him and that she had had a relationship with another man.” Apparently the fact that a 14-year-old child might not love a man that she had been forced to marry and have sex with did not cross the minds of the judges in her case. Further, this young woman has been emotionally terrorized throughout her time in prison: “She has been subjected to mock stoning on two occasions – buried up to her chest and threatened with death unless she co-operated.” This sort of treatment is unacceptable, regardless of religion, country, law, tradition, or custom.

In the words of Namazie, “It is a crime to be a woman in Iran.”

Further, in April 2010, Iran was given a seat on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, whose mission, ironically, is “gender equality and the advancement of women.” This appointment was after Iran failed to gain a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

Now, I am trying to stick to the facts and not deviate too much into the realm of sarcasm, however, this appointment confounds me. How is it possible that a country known throughout the world for its ill treatment and arrest of women based on subjective crimes of morality (while often ignoring the similar actions of men) and the stoning of women convicted of adultery could possibly earn a seat on the UN Commission on the Status of Women? Basically, instead of condemning Iran for its treatment of women, the United Nations has deemed it prudent to include this country on a commission whose objective is to improve the treatment of and increase the dignity and human rights of women around the world. In the words of Margaret Wente, “No one explained how stoning women to death advances gender equality. This is a moral inversion so twisted that it defies satire.” And in the words of Namazie, “It's like asking apartheid South Africa to sit on the commission for racial equality.”

Finally, while “stoning is hugely unpopular inside Iran, and Iranians do not like their country to be portrayed as medievally barbaric,” it is important to note that Iran “strenuously depicts Western protests as an assault on Iran and Islamic values.” Further, one Iranian official said, The execution of Islamic religious laws on [such things as] death by stoning, hijab and inheritance has always faced their audacious animosity and, basically, any issue which hints of religious law is always opposed by them.” In light of these sentiments, it is therefore important to ask the question, “How is stoning women an Islamic value?”

Now, before you leave this page to go read something a little bit lighter, please consider signing the petition above. If we turn away from this woman now, in her hour of greatest need, how are we any better than the officials who have condemned her? In the words of a woman who was imprisoned in the same jail as Ashtiani in 2008: “Sakineh is the symbol of all the women who are tortured and assaulted in prison in Iran. I hope international support, as well as obtaining Sakineh’s liberation, will open the way to a change in this situation.” For the sake of abused and tortured women and men everywhere, I pray this is the case.


Robin Pomeroy. “Iran Woman Facing Stoning Death Appears on State TV.” Reuters (August 12, 2010). (accessed August 12, 2010).

Margaret Wente.It’s a crime to be a woman in Iran.” The Globe and Mail (August 12, 2010). (accessed August 12, 2010).

Adrian Morrow, “Iranian Woman Could Be Executed This Week, Son Says,” The Globe and Mail (September 6, 2010), (accessed September 6, 2010).