BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Natalia Ponce de Leon’s life was shattered within seconds when a stalker hurled acid at her outside the family home in an upscale part of the Colombian capital last year.
The sulphuric acid devoured Ponce’s face, neck, abdomen and legs, melting her skin and leaving a quarter of her body burnt in an attack that shocked the Latin American country.
Since then, the 33-year-old has undergone 15 operations to reconstruct her face using artificial skin from the Netherlands.
“It destroys you. Look at my burnt body without a face, without an identity - an identity erased,” said Ponce, who must wear a clear, custom-made mask to protect her face.
“(It was) absolute torture. I was between life and death,” she told reporters in Bogota during her first public appearance since the attack, which was captured by surveillance cameras.
Although acid attacks are most common in South Asia, Colombia reported one of the highest rates per capita in the world in 2012.
After the attack, Ponce’s suspected assailant was quickly arrested, charged with attempted murder and sent to jail awaiting trial.
Under Colombian law, acid attacks are defined as personal injury, a crime carrying a maximum 15-year prison sentence.
But in a test case that campaigners hope could set the precedent for tougher sentencing in acid cases, prosecutors are seeking a 35-year jail term for Ponce’s attacker.
The verdict is expected within weeks.
Activists and women’s rights officials say stiffer penalties are key to deterring such incidents in a country where 565 women and 361 men have been attacked with acid in the past decade.
“We haven’t yet had exemplary punishments (for acid attacks),” said Martha Lucia Sanchez, women’s rights secretary at the Bogota mayor’s office.
“Maybe in the case of Natalia there will be an exemplary punishment given ... levels of impunity remain high.”
Until now most Colombians convicted of acid attacks have received prison sentences of up to six years, and some criminals have been allowed to serve their sentences under house arrest.
Often perpetrated by jealous or vengeful boyfriends, husbands and former partners, the attacks are often inflicted on women from poor backgrounds with little education and a long history of domestic violence.
Unlike the hundreds of other acid attack survivors before her, Ponce, is a household name in Colombia. With a middle-class background and university education, Ponce did not fit the usual profile of an acid attack victim.
She says a 2013 law on acid attacks does not go far enough and there is a lack of specialized medical care for victims.
Working with other campaigners, Ponce wants to introduce a bill that would define acid attacks as attempted murder, and increase the maximum sentence to 50 years in jail for perpetrators of the crime.
“For the people that do this, what we all want is for justice with tougher punishments, and with regards to the sale of chemicals, more stringent measures so that they don’t get in the wrong hands,” Ponce said.
Ensuring victims get the psychological treatment they need in the months and years after an attack is crucial for recovery.
“One can get out of a torture like this, but if the health system or state doesn’t help you, you won’t make it out .. it’s the rehabilitation that gets you up on your feet again,” said Ponce, who has set up a foundation in her name to support acid attack survivors.
Around 1,500 acid attacks are reported globally each year, with women the victims in 80 percent of cases, according to London-based charity Acid Survivors Trust International, which says the actual number is probably much higher since most victims are too scared to speak out.
Acid attacks are common in South Asia, including in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. They also occur in the Middle East, and in Latin America, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica are known as hotspots for the crime.
Acid attacks are particularly prevalent in countries where misogyny is pervasive, acid is cheap and easily available, and perpetrators are rarely punished, experts say.
“This is part of machismo in our country where a man believes he owns a woman and can do with her what he likes,” said plastic surgeon Linda Guerrero, who co-founded the Burns Foundation, a clinic providing reconstructive surgery for victims.
“What many victims have said about their aggressors is that the man says, ‘You’re mine or you’re not with anyone, and I’ll disfigure you so that no one else will get involved with you’,” Guerrero said.
“It’s the most visible expression of violence against women in our country.”
Even though there are male victims of acid attacks in Colombia, the crime is particularly vicious when directed at women, said women’s rights secretary Sanchez.
“Women in general are attacked in the face ... attacks against men are generally more in the torso, which aren’t aimed at ending their lives. It’s a premeditated crime,” she said.
Ponce says she is focused on her recovery and not on the man who destroyed her identity.
“With forgiveness, it’s not about forgiving but how to heal the soul yourself ... not to have this hatred and resentment because this destroys any soul,” Ponce said.
“What’s most important is to concentrate on myself and not be thinking about the guy who did this to me.”
Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Katie Nguyen