Victims of spite: acid attack survivors at an anti-violence rally in Dhaka. (Photo: Rex Features)
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Acid attacks: a horrific crime on the increase worldwide

Around 1,500 cases are recorded every year but the real figure is probably far higher.

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.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.