05.13.134:45 AM ET

Acid Attacks Against Women on the Rise in Italy

A vicious spate of copycat acid crimes has shocked the European country—and reveals a deep-seated culture of violence against women. Warning: graphic images below.

When Vania Del Col, 31, opened her door to her Vicenza apartment last Thursday, she found two hooded men waiting for her. They forced their way into her home and pushed her to the floor. Then they poured acid from a glass bottle on her, severely burning her arms and buttocks. The assailants also threw acid on a dog in the adjacent yard. Del Col had survived a brutal rape by an ex-boyfriend in 2002 and the man, who served just under four years for that attack, is the primary suspect, though his whereabouts are unknown. In the week before the attack, Del Col’s husband said his wife found four notes in letterbox that said, “You are going to die,” and “Be careful, we know what you are doing.” 

As horrific as Del Col’s attack might be, the greater tragedy is that it is the third such acid attack against women in Italy in the last month. Two weeks ago, a 36-year-old woman, eight weeks pregnant with twins, was standing in the parking lot of the local health clinic near Milan, ready for her regular prenatal checkup when a masked man drove up on a scooter and threw battery acid in her face. Her twins survived the trauma, but the woman, whose name is listed in police reports as Samanta F., may lose vision in her left eye. The assailant is described as a robust man between 50 and 60 years old, but he has not been found. Neither Samanta nor her fiancé report having been threatened or having any enemies. “For now we don’t know why anyone would do this,” says Luigi Orsi, the investigating magistrate leading the investigation.

On April 16, three men forced their way into the Pesaro apartment owned by Lucia Annibali, 35, who works as a lawyer. The men threw acid on her face, blinding her and destroying one of her eyes, and completely disfiguring her face. The men were arrested after a neighbor heard her screams and chased after them. A week later, her ex-boyfriend, Luca Varani, who is also a lawyer, was then arrested for allegedly ordering the attack. He had a wound on his hand that investigators say is consistent with an acid burn, although he maintains that he burned himself with hot coffee.

The acid attacks are considered copycat crimes, but they follow a disturbing trend of escalating violence against women in Italy. More than 6,743,000 women in Italy—roughly one in three women in the country—report being a victim of domestic violence. According to Telefono Rosa, the nation’s primary helpline for domestic violence, more than 40,000 women call for help each year. In 2012, 124 women were killed by partners or loved ones. In 2013, 25 women have been killed so far. As many as 15 percent of those killed had reported an ex-husband or ex-boyfriend for stalking. “On one hand there is a marked escalation of domestic violence in this country,” says Anna Costanza Baldry, a psychologist with the domestic-violence support group Differenza Donna. “But the good news is that the numbers are rising in part because women are finally coming forward to denounce their aggressors, which will act as a deterrent for others.”

ISLAMABAD-PAKISTAN-JUNE 24: Nasreen Sharif, 26, an acid victim burned 11 years ago, who is totally blind poses June 24, 2007 in Islamabad, Pakistan. Nasreen is from the small village of Shakna Ganeshpur in Punjab, she was burned when she was only 15 years old after rejecting a marriage from a much older man who was her father's cousin. The attacker was orginally charged facing up to 25 years in prison but after a large bribe of $10,000 was paid he was released after 3 months. The man is now a laywer. "I used to cry alot but now after all this time I see thw world has many other miseries and mine is a small one." Nasreen is still struggling with being blind, living in Pakistan means that she has few choices for her career. Depilex Smileagain Foundation, a non-governmental organization is helping her recovery with vocational training and ongoing reconstructive surgery. Depilex Simleagain Foundation has a program in Italy for medical care. Nasreen was sent for three years in order to get in depth surgical care. The UN and other human rights organizations have issued reports for years on many forms of violence against women in Pakistan which involve domestic violence, rape, and honor killings. Acid is thrown at women to avenge the shame that the woman is accused of bringing, as revenge. Typically it is over marriage refusals, which are often arranged, arguments in the home and sexual advances that are rejected. Acid burns rarely kill but result in serious disfigurement and suffering which confine women to their homes leading to social isolation and depression. Allegations are made and the crime is commited easily. Acid is used commonly for cleaning and in agriculture for the cotton seeds in the rural areas. It is cheap and readily available to all. Although women have protested the open sale of acid, it is still easily available. Women in Pakistan face biases in the criminal justice system and police are relunctant to deal with the so called " family matters" . Only a s
Nasreen Sharif, 26, an acid victim burned 11 years ago and who is completely blind, poses in 2007 in Islamabad, Pakistan. (Paula Bronstein/Getty)

Baldry says the acid attacks underscore a worrying national problem of unbridled violence against women. She says that using acid as a weapon appeals to some aggressors because it is more permanent than traditional forms of violence, from which women eventually heal—at least physically. “They use acid because it takes just a tiny dose to corrode and ruin someone’s life,” says Michele Marzano, a center-left politician who is struggling to put domestic violence on the national agenda. “The aggressor often chooses a woman’s face because it embodies her beauty and her identity. The acid removes the shape of her face. It is a way to cancel her out.”

Unless the surge in crimes against women captures the nation’s attention, the incidents will likely continue to grow, causing momentary outrage each time they make the headlines, but then quickly forgotten. Italy’s burgeoning political crises have meant that serious social issues like programs to help combat the violence against women have fallen by the wayside. And without educational programs and initiatives to help women in vulnerable situations, those who deal with battered women worry that the trend will soon reach epidemic proportions. “To combat sexual violence, we need to invest in education in schools, we need money to create more safe centers to protect women and children in vulnerable situations,” says Baldry. “Words alone won’t win this battle. And we are running out of time.”