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Acid Attacks Threaten Cambodia Women

November 11, 2000

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ In Cambodia, awash in weapons after decades of war, there are plenty of ways to take revenge. But for those who throw acid instead of grenades, the aim is not to kill but to strip a woman of her beauty.

And unlike in other countries where acid-burning is usually done by men, in Cambodia some two-thirds of attacks are perpetrated by women.

``I have little hope for anything now,″ whispers 17-year-old Tat Somarina, a model and karaoke star who was doused with nitric acid one year ago in a high-profile attack by the wife of a man she was seeing.

Doctors and human rights workers count at least 20 copycat attacks since Somarina’s, and many more probably have gone unreported.

Some blame rapid social change. Though still one of the world’s poorest countries, a market economy and international aid after years of isolation and communism have bred a rich urban elite.

Girls don’t get equal access to education, so beauty is often the only ticket to a comfortable life.

Bigamy, once discouraged, has become commonplace among the male elite.

``It’s not seen as a moral issue any more, even if the girl is very young,″ said Oung Chanthol, executive director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, which provides acid victims with shelter and basic medical treatment.

A woman whose husband takes a ``second wife″ may beg him to stop or threaten the newcomer. But if she resorts to acid, it is most likely to be against the other woman, not the man.

Somarina now lives with a brother in Lynn, Mass. Her skin is a thick, immobile mask, her nose reduced to two holes, her newly reconstructed lips swollen and raw.

She will undergo years of treatment at Shriners Hospitals in nearby Boston, but has little hope of regaining anything like her former looks.

Like many young girls she had to quit school in her early teens to help support her parents and nine siblings.

She sold fruit drinks by the road until her looks landed her a modeling job. Soon she was appearing in karaoke videos.

At 15 she met Svay Sitha, a high-ranking government official. At first she says, she did not know he was married. Then she started getting threats.

On Dec. 5, 1999, as she was sitting down to eat lunch at a street vendor’s stall, five or six men descended on her, kicking and knocking her unconscious.

Then, witnesses said, a woman poured half a gallon of nitric acid over the back of Somarina’s head.

Police identified the woman as Svay Sitha’s wife, Khourn Sophal, and several weeks later the municipal court issued a warrant for her arrest. But there have been no arrests; there rarely are.

``A small number of perpetrators are being punished, but mainly the poor with no connections,″ said Eva Galabru of the human rights group Licadho in Phnom Penh.

When her plight became known through her brother in Massachusetts, Northwest Airlines gave Somarina a free plane ticket, and Shriners Hospitals, one of several clinics in the United States that treat acid-attack victims, has agreed to treat her for free until she is 21.

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