Sunday 22 September 2019

This acid attack survivor ‘rose from the ashes’ to change her country for the better

Natalia Ponce de Leon was attacked by a stalker in 2014 and had gone on to become an outspoken activist for victim’s rights.

(One Young World/PA)
(One Young World/PA)

By Taylor Heyman

Natalia Ponce de Leon was 33 when a man she barely knew knocked on her front door in Bogota, Colombia. When she opened it, Jonathan Vega threw a litre of sulphuric acid over her face and body, leaving her with terrible, life-changing burns.

Video footage of Vega committing this violent crime was captured on nearby CCTV and soon spread across Colombia.

Instead of shrinking from public attention in the aftermath of the attack, Natalia decided to use the publicity for good.

The public outcry at the attack ensured Natalia was given the best of care, something not all victims of acid attacks have access to.

“It came to my heart that I had to do something, because I was receiving everything but the rest of the survivors received nothing,” Natalia told the Press Association.

Three years and multiple surgeries on, and Natalia is a high profile victims rights activist in Colombia, with a law bearing her name. This law singles out acid attacks as a specific crime and increases the maximum prison term for those who attack others with acid to 50 years.

On Friday, she gave a speech about her fight for justice for acid attack victims to the One Young World Conference in her home city of Bogota. The conference gives a platform to those who have achieved extraordinary things in activism.

“I was reborn from the ashes, and started a new life,” Natalia said.

Natalia’s foundation, which bears the logo of a phoenix, last year launched a campaign to increase the penalties for this type of violent crime and for the government to fund more specialist burns units across the country. She used the iconic mask she wore to encourage skin recovery as a symbol for the campaign, which was named No More Masks.

The Natalia Ponce de Leon foundation now supports 40 women around the world who have been victims of acid attacks, providing mental health support, advice and a community of survivors for victims to access.

In Colombia and across Asia, women are disproportionately the victims of these type of attacks. Natalia says more needs to be done to change how women are seen in society to prevent these attacks happening to more people.

“In Colombia, they use [acid attacks] to destroy women,” she says. “The guy’s thought is: “If you are not going to be mine, I don’t want to kill you, but I want to destroy your life,” she said.

“But women are not objects, we are human beings.”

In the UK, however, which is experiencing an alarming rise in acid attacks (figures obtained by the BBC from 37 police forces show over 500 attacks in 2016-17), men are most often the victims.

In London, acid has been used in robberies.

Natalia has lived in London, and is deeply concerned about the rise of acid attacks in the city. She says that controlling the sale of these types of corrosive acid is paramount, and that penalties for these crimes need to be higher in the UK.

Most importantly, though, Natalia says people need to be aware of what to do if they or someone they know is attacked with acid.

PA Media

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