Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia

According to The Legal Medicine Institute, in Colombia, more than 1000 attacks have been recorded in the last decade. Acid-attack survivors in Colombia are predominantly women, assaulted by jealous partners, resentful neighbors or even at random.

Violence against women and girls is a silent crime in our society; it’s both a cause and consequence of gender inequality; a means of social control that maintains unequal power relations between women and men and reinforces women’s subordinate status. Acid attacks are one form of violence that has life-changing consequences for the victim.

Attacks using acid and other corrosive substances have been reported as a new modality of violence that affects thousands of victims; the truth is that women have been suffering from these attacks for many years.

Commonly associated with south Asian countries and communities, this crime is not limited by geography. According to The Legal Medicine Institute, in Colombia, more than 1000 attacks have been recorded in the last decade - by far the highest in the continent - but this is not reported by mainstream media, and the voices of the victims are somewhat forgotten.

Acid-attack survivors in Colombia are predominantly women, attacked by jealous partners, resentful neighbors or even at random. Until recently, attacks were treated as cases of domestic violence carrying shorter sentences and few convictions have been made. A new law passed in 2016 by Colombia’s President aims to ensure that those convicted of carrying out acid attacks will serve between 12 and 50 years in prison, depending on the severity of the wounds.

‘Facing Up: Acid Attacks In Colombia’ sets out to document the lives of women survivors of acid attacks in Colombia. This project offers an intimate view into the complexity of the issues these survivors are dealing with and the life-changing consequences that these attacks have brought on them: from undergoing painful and extensive surgery while juggling a family and work, to living in perpetual fear, to women fighting to bring their attackers to justice, but all of them struggling to find their place in society following the attacks.

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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Luz Nidia Mendoza, 35, was attacked in the streets of Medellin by an unknown man in March 2011. She is blind now and her 16 years old daughter is working to help her to pay for their bills.

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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Silvia Julio, 27, was attacked apparently by mistake when the man who did it confused Silvia with her flatmate. Since the attack in 2013 she is partially sighted." I have 4 children and I couldn’t work anymore after the attack. I am collaborating now with an NGO where we make handmade necklaces and bracelets to sell.'' said Julio.

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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"I still want to look pretty. I like to do my make-up, wear high heels and nice dresses. I don’t want society to feel sorry for me"- Viviana Hernandez, 32. Her former husband paid a drug addict to drench her in acid in October 2007 because she wanted to leave him.

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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“Since the attack I am blind but I still like to cook, to clean my house, to do the laundry, so I have learned how to do that without seeing. When I am alone at home I listen to music and dance. That makes me happy."- Luz Mendoza

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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Consuelo Cordoba is now 56 years old. Her former partner attacked her in June 2002 while she was sleeping. The acid melted off most of her face, including her nose. He was jealous because she wanted to move to Europe.

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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"My only daughter abandoned me and I have been living in a small room for some years. I am alone in this life. I would like to go to sleep today and not wake up tomorrow." - Consuelo Cordoba

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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Patricia Espitia, 37, celebrates the quinceanera (15th birthday) of her daughter, an important Latin-American celebration when a girl is introduced as a woman in the society. Espitia was attacked by an unknown couple in 2007 in the streets of Bogotá, Colombia and has endured over 28 surgeries since then.

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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"For two years after the attack I spent every day lying in my bed. I didn’t want to talk with anybody, even with my children. But one day I decided to forgive who did this to me and that helped me to understand many things." - Luz Mendoza

© Betty Laura Zapata - Patricia Espitia regularly visits a beauty salon as part of her daily activities.
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Patricia Espitia regularly visits a beauty salon as part of her daily activities.

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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"When I was being attended at the hospital I told the police that I knew my husband was the one who organized the attack and they told me I needed to respect my husband because I didn’t have any evidence to say he was guilty." - Viviana Hernandez

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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The survivors often ask the Colombian authorities to provide more medical and psychological treatment for the victims, and financial support as they try to restore their lives.

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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Despite the efforts being made to end the attacks and alleviate the physical pain of victims, the most difficult aspect for those attacked is the emotional scarring left by the chemical wounds. In most cases, acid attacks are designed to inflict humiliation more than actual pain.

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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Patricia Espitia undergoes a medical examination before her next surgery in an eye clinic in the Colombian capital. After the attack she has been trying to recover part of her vision.

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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According to with The Legal Medicine Institute 87% of Colombia’s acid attack victims are women, while 90% of perpetrators are men.

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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After a long day, Luz gets ready to sleep next to her 16 years old daughter Jennifer who is now working to help her to pay for their bills.

© Betty Laura Zapata - Image from the Facing Up: Acid Attacks in Colombia  photography project
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"After the attack I suffered from cervical cancer and went into treatment. Then my 14 years old daughter died tragically and I was devastated for long time. Now, I consider myself a survivor". Patricia Espitia currently works for an NGO in Bogotá where they aim to help other acid attack victims in Colombia.