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The NS Interview: Precious Lunga, epidemiologist

“When I say I’m a scientist, you can see people blinking.”

Do you ever feel in a strange position because you're a woman in a male-dominated field?
It's more the reaction of other people. When I say, "I'm a scientist," you can see them blinking. I did an outreach event at a school in Camden, where I dressed up as a scientist and explained the whole point of science and a girl said to me, "Wow -- you're a woman and you're a scientist!" And that's in London.

How did you get involved in Aids research?
In a roundabout way, because I trained as a neuroscientist. I enjoyed it and yet there was always a niggle that I wanted to interact with women and children and be out in the field.

So what's your job description now?
I'm an epidemiologist, working as a consultant for a children's foundation.

You've been involved with antimicrobial gels to combat HIV. Why are they important?
It's almost a kind of chemical condom that will allow women to protect themselves against HIV but also keep options open for them. So if they want to have babies they could do so with far less risk of catching HIV, because most women catch HIV in long-term relationships and they can't always negotiate condom use. It gives women that agency in their lives.

And when you talk about your fieldwork, which countries have you been to?
Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique. I've done a lot of work in South Africa. That's where the burden, the bulk, of the epidemic is.

What's that experience like?
You don't get that many African women travelling around on their own, staying in hotels, so people often come up to me and ask me what I'm doing. I went through Johannesburg [airport] so often that I got to know some of the people there. There was a woman and I told her what I do. I noticed she didn't look very well. She said: "I have a friend who might have HIV. Is it true people die of that?" I said yes but it doesn't need to happen now; tell your friend to go to the hospital for drugs. A couple of months later, I walked through the airport and saw her and she looked so well. We had this interaction and I just hugged her. It was as if I knew her.

Because presumably the drugs were for her?
Yeah, it was a way of having the conversation with her. And when you see that, you see the fruits of the research.

Did any other individuals you met stand out?
The community stood out. You ask the women why they do this and they come out with all sorts of reasons. One of them might say: "I'm doing it for my sisters and my children."

Why are we so bad at dealing with Aids?
It requires a lot of commitment. It requires an investment. It goes beyond an election term. The time and effort haven't quite matched up to the scale of the problem.

Have we avoided an "Aids epidemic" by making HIV manageable rather than fatal?
There are countries such as Zimbabwe, which is where I'm from, where you can see declines in the epidemic because fewer people are getting [infected]; more people are getting treatment. But we can treat HIV yet we can't cure it. We need to find new methods of prevention.

What was life like in Zimbabwe?
I grew up there until I was 17, then I came to the UK to do my studies and I stayed. I went to a convent school; most girls didn't do science. When I was at school, I loved history and all these other subjects. I remember one of the nuns saying to me, "You're good at science, so you must do science." And my parents always encouraged me.

How is the situation in Zimbabwe now?
Things are in flux. People are hopeful that it will get better. In terms of HIV, I think it's a good sign that fewer people are dying than five years ago but it's anybody's guess what's going to happen next.

Since your marriage to the Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow, has the focus on your personal life overshadowed your work?
Only in the past year, because if you'd googled me ten months ago, you'd have seen all my professional stuff. But when I'm interacting with people, it doesn't come up. Perhaps they're all very polite and don't mention it. I don't google myself so I don't know.

Will you always be a scientist?
Yes, but what sort of science I'll be doing in ten years' time, I don't know.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
Loads. But when you try to forget something, you remember it.

Are we all doomed?
No. Saying we're all doomed is fatalistic and, by nature, I'm an interventionist. If I think something is not going well, there must be a way of fixing it: that's my approach to life.

Defining Moments

1974 Born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
1998 Gains first-class degree in neuroscience at Edinburgh University
2003 Is awarded PhD in neuroscience at Cambridge University, where she captained the women's karate team
2005 Starts work for the Medical Research Council, focusing on HIV/Aids
2008 Becomes a Yale World Fellow
2011 Joins the Children's Investment Fund Foundation

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.