A spate of acid attacks has earned London the dubious recent distinction of being called “the acid capital of Britain.” There have been more than 100 acid attacks reported in 2017 alone, with at least one a day in the city, and there are suggestions the true figure is much higher.
There’s a common misconception that acid attacks take place only in developing countries. They are, in fact, a worldwide phenomenon. Acid attacks have been reported in the U.K., Canada, Italy (27 registered assaults in 2016) and other industrialized countries. Approximately 1,500 acid attacks are recorded worldwide annually. Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Cambodia and Uganda are countries with the highest reported incidence.
More than two-thirds of recent victims in the U.K. are men. But globally, 80 per cent of acid attack victims are women and girls. Acid violence is categorized as a form of gender-based violence because gendered roles and hierarchies within families and society not only motivate perpetrators to commit the crime, but also provide them with a sense of impunity.
Attackers aim to disfigure victims
Perpetrators usually intend to disfigure rather than kill their victims. The patriarchal reasoning that a woman’s appearance is her only asset often drives acid violence. Even in the U.K., where most victims are men, a gang member admits quite easily in a YouTube documentary produced by VICE that although he has attacked both men and women with acid, he would “prefer to use acid on a girl nine out of 10 times” because “they love their beauty.”
Acid attacks are often specifically used to ruin a woman’s future romantic prospects, her career, financial security and social status. This perverse logic for acid attacks appears to hold water everywhere in the world. In 2008, Katie Piper’s ex-boyfriend hired an attacker in London to specifically throw sulphuric acid on her face to make her unattractive to other men and destroy her modelling career.
Perpetrators of acid violence are almost always men, and toxic masculinity —the desire to permanently victimize someone while demonstrating his own power and brutality —is almost always the underlying cause regardless of whether the victim is a woman, man or transgendered person.
Boys, men, need strong education programs
None of the policies and interventions aimed at responding to acid violence have engaged meaningfully with this fact. Proactive prevention strategies must involve sensitizing men and boys to the effects of gender-based violence, including acid attacks, and incorporating them into prevention activities.
Such approaches should be prioritized – or at least simultaneously implemented – as reactive strategies such as policing acid sellers and purchasers, and seeking longer jail sentences for perpetrators, which countries like Great Britain, Italy, Bangladesh and India are currently pursuing.
Perpetrators use acid because it is easy to purchase, easier to use than knives or guns, and because it has devastating consequences upon victims. Perpetrators also use other corrosive substances to disfigure their victims. This is true for recent attacks in the U.K. and in Montreal in 2012, when Tanya St-Arnauld’s ex-boyfriend used a household cleaning liquid to attack her.
This means that in countries where acid is not widely available or expensive, perpetrators will find destructive alternatives (kerosene, for example) that have the same disfiguring effect. Keeping purchase records of such common products will be difficult, if not impossible.
Governments and acid violence prevention NGOs have advocated for social, medical and legal reforms that have assisted in improving health, education and training, human rights, laws and psychosocial services for acid attack survivors. But to date, none of them have developed programs that authentically acknowledge or address the root cause of acid violence.
In some countries, state responsibilities have been supplemented or even replaced by NGOs, even though the latter cannot replace the former’s role in protecting citizens. Stronger state involvement is critical not just in service provision to survivors but also in prevention.