Asia Pacific

Acid attack survivors say Cambodia is illegally denying them care

Thomson Reuters Foundation

For Moung Sreymom, survival comes down to accessing doctors that will treat her wounds for free.

As the target of an acid attack in Cambodia, the law entitles Sreymom to free medical care at state hospitals. But she — and many others like her — are yet to receive any.

“Nobody can help me. I have been treated unjustly,” she said.

In late 2014, the now-single mother’s life changed course when a rival vendor poured flesh-eating acid over her head as she worked her market stall in rural Cambodia.

Her daughter, aged two at the time, was splashed across the face.

They have since moved to Phnom Penh to be close to two charities that provide treatment, and Sreymom lives with wounds under her arms that reopen when she works.

“I can’t bear to talk about it — I just want to forget,” she said.

About 1,500 acid attacks are reported globally each year, most of them against women, according to Acid Survivors Trust International, a London-based charity.

The attacks are usually carried out as revenge, sometimes for suspected infidelity, and can leave their targets severely disfigured — and in need of ongoing treatment — for life.

Sreymom is one of 17 Cambodians profiled by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a new report that accuses Phnom Penh of failing to enforce a law passed in 2012 to curb acid attacks and provide legal and medical support to victims.

The report, “‘What Hell Feels Like’: Acid Violence in Cambodia,” said while the number of attacks had fallen, not a single survivor had received treatment free of charge at a public hospital.

“Instead, survivors face the full range of problems anyone in need of emergency and other serious medical treatment faces in Cambodia, including denial of treatment until they show proof that they can pay or provide out-of-pocket payments,” it said.

Cambodia’s health sector is beset by allegations of corruption and informal payments, with the health of patients often held to ransom.

But health ministry spokesman Ly Sovan said the government was holding up its end of the bargain with regard to acid attack victims, contrary to HRW’s findings.

“We would like to deny the accusation. We have the law, and we provide the service for free,” he said, referring further questions to a second spokesman who did not respond.

Survivors of acid attacks in Cambodia describe feeling helpless and alone in their fight for justice and health care — and not just because of official inaction.

One woman profiled by HRW described how she was doused in a crowded market where shoppers cheered for her attacker to escape as acid ate through her face and upper body.

Only after she convinced them that she was the wife — and not the mistress — of the attacker did they come to her aid.

“There is a general perception in Cambodia that somehow the attack was deserved, they were in an extramarital affair, it was their karma, etc.” said Erin Bourgois, former head of the shuttered Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, or CASC.

CASC was the only charity dedicated to acid violence in Cambodia and a key driver behind implementation of the acid law.

It ran support groups and aftercare shelters; educated medical professionals, local police and government officials; and provided aftercare for survivors, both physical and psychological.

Between 2010 and 2014, it measured an 83 percent decrease in acid attacks.

Then, in 2015 with about 50 survivors on its books, CASC phased out and handed over responsibility to the government.

“There was an expectation that the Royal Government of Cambodia would fulfill its end of the bargain by providing these free services to survivors as prescribed in the law,” Bourgois said.

But Sun Nov, a garment worker who has required regular treatment since her jealous husband doused her in acid in 2016, said she’d seen nothing of it.

“There is no free treatment,” she said. “I’ve never heard of this policy.