Naomi Oni had left work and was on her way home to Dagenham, east London, when acid was thrown in her face. The attack took place in 2012 when she was just 20 years old. Oni is still undergoing painful skin grafts to rebuild her face.
In an emotional interview on Radio 4’s Today programme on 24 March, Oni, now 22, spoke of her isolation. “I didn’t choose this,” she said. “I’m only human.” She labelled the Metropolitan Police as incompetent: they initially suggested she had thrown acid on herself. They later charged Mary Konye, a former friend of Oni’s, with the attack; she was found guilty in January and jailed for 12 years.
Acid violence has been in the headlines after several high-profile cases. Last August, Kirstie Trup and Katie Gee, two British 18-year-olds, suffered a random attack in Zanzibar. The previous January, the Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director Sergei Filin was assaulted by one of its principal dancers.
Worldwide, about 1,500 cases of acid violence are recorded every year, according to Acid Survivors Trust, but the real figure is probably far higher. And the sheer brutality of acid attacks – which take seconds to carry out but can cause permanent disability, as well as excruciating pain and disfigurement – makes them unusual and noteworthy.
It has been suggested that attacks are increasing in the UK but a lack of reliable statistics makes this difficult to verify. NHS statistics recorded 105 hospital admissions for “assault by corrosive substance” in 2011-2012, but this category covers not only acid. That contrasts with 44 admissions in 2006-2007. There is no ethnic or geographic evidence to back this up, but some reports suggest that honour crimes in south Asian, south-east Asian and East African communities are responsible for the increase.
Certainly attacks are prevalent in south Asia, but they also happen in Cambodia, Vietnam, Colombia, Peru and elsewhere, including the UK and the US. It is a kind of violence that transcends cultural and religious borders, but is most common in places where acid is readily available. In south Asia, where regulation is poor and acid is used in the cotton industry, a bottle of the stuff can be bought for 20p.
The crime has a long history in Britain. In the 1740s, when sulphuric acid was widely available, acid-throwing happened often. In the 1830s, one Glasgow periodical wrote that acid violence had “become so common . . . as to become almost a stain on the national character”.
Acid attacks are often a form of gender-based violence and, as such, they occur most commonly in countries where women are disenfranchised. Last year I visited the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) in Islamabad, the only centre in Pakistan dedicated to the rehabilitation and treatment of victims. The most striking thing about the stories of the women I met was the triviality of the causes: men taking revenge for rejected marriage proposals or husbands who got bored by their wives. It brought to mind the case of the former model Katie Piper, the UK’s most high-profile acid survivor, whose attack was orchestrated by an ex-boyfriend in 2008.
There are no hard and fast rules of this crime: men can be the victims of acid attack and women can be the perpetrators. Yet the attacks are always about exerting control and erasing identity. Mohammad Jawad, a plastic surgeon who operated on Piper and who appeared in Saving Face, the Oscar-winning documentary about acid attacks in Pakistan, described it thus: “The attacker is saying: ‘I don’t want to kill her – I am going to do something to distort her.’ It’s a walking dead situation for the victim.”
When the Today presenter Mishal Husain asked Oni why Konye had attacked her, she started to sob. “She is an evil person . . . No one in this world should throw acid on someone because they had an argument.”
It is a natural impulse to search for the reasons for such abuse, but can there ever be a justification? To most people it would be unimaginable to lose one’s face. As Oni said during her interview, explaining oneself and being disbelieved is a second abuse.
The situation for survivors of acid violence varies globally, but to differing extents all survivors feel socially ostracised. Few cultures are kind to disfigurement.
“Acid attack doesn’t mean the end of your life,” Valerie Khan, the director of ASF Islamabad, told me: “provided you receive those rehabilitation services to psychologically and physically repair you, mentally rebuild your self-confidence, and empower you economically – despite the new you, which is not necessarily an easy one to be accepted with.”
Acid violence is an extreme expression of control. Society can help to wrest some of that back for survivors by believing them, supporting them, providing medical treatment, and, crucially, redressing the balance with justice.