acid attack

Stealing Beauty: The Devastating Impact of Acid Violence

Survivor Yem Chhuon and her 6-year-old daughter—the youngest reported victim of an attack—share their harrowing story.

03.11.11 5:17 PM ET

Friday morning's first session brought many audience members to tears. In "Stealing Beauty," Dr. Ebby Elahi, Judge Joan Arterton, and Yem Chhuon gave attendees a window into the deeply troubling, terribly under-reported global incidences of acid attacks. Eighty percent of victims are women. And Yem, who came from Cambodia to speak to the summit, is one of them.

Six years ago, she was breastfeeding her newborn baby when her husband’s mistress snuck into her house, and threw acid in her face. It caused severe disfigurement to both her, and Sophorn, who was just twelve days old at the time, and is officially the world’s youngest acid attack victim. “I tried my very best to cover and protect my baby, but yes, my baby suffered as well,” Yem said through her interpreter. “My daughter is here with me and she’s very beautiful and very smart.”

With that, McFadden asked Sophorn to join her mother on stage, and a few minutes later she appeared, a beautiful little girl, now 6, wearing a bright pink skirt and crooked pigtails. She smiled broadly and put her hands together in front of her in a traditional Cambodian greeting, then hopped in Dr. Elahi’s lap.

Elahi, an ocular surgeon, has worked with Yem and her daughter steadily in the six years since the attack, and he calls the fact that Sophorn can now see normally, nothing short of miraculous. “This day would not happen if not for Dr. Elahi—to us, he’s God,” said Yem.

Acid attacks are not confined to Cambodia, of course, but occur throughout the world. Just this morning, McFadden reminded us, an acid attack was reported in Brooklyn, New York, mere miles from the Hudson Theatre. The motive in such attacks is not to kill, but to disfigure, and therefore destroy a woman’s prospects for marriage, for a normal life, by making her an outcast. Where Cambodia’s attacks are often committed by women on women, in Liberia, acid was thrown from tanks and cars during the civil war, dousing the surrounding crowds. And in Bangladesh and India, the attacks are mostly done by men, essentially punishing women for rejecting them. Elahi cited the “culture of impunity, culture of inconsequence,” that makes such attacks so common. Acid is cheap and easy to find in these rural areas, and attackers are rarely punished.

But perhaps the most disturbing note came at the end, when Elahi reminded us of the life-long damage that victims suffer. “Victims are often victimized,” he said. “If you’re wearing the scars of an acid attack, people assume you must have done something to deserve it.”