Vanessa Muenstermann during a press conference in Hanover, Germany, 8 September 2017. The 28 year old has been permanently disfigured since an acid attack of her ex-boyfriend one and a half years ago. Muenstermann spoke on the work of her club
Vanessa Muenstermann during a press conference in Hanover, Germany, 8 September 2017. The 28 year old has been permanently disfigured since an acid attack of her ex-boyfriend one and a half years ago. Muenstermann spoke on the work of her club "AusGezeichnet". Holger Hollemann - dpa

Acid attack capitals of the world

ACID ATTACKS that melt the faces off victims in an instant are on the rise globally.

The horrifying trend has few barriers with offenders attacking targets in their homes and on streets in the UK, France, Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cambodia and other places.

The attacks are particularly common in South Asia, where male attackers use the weapon to disfigure women as a form of punishment or control. But London is fast on the region's heals and has, in recent times, earned the unenviable title of 'acid attack capital of the world'. Although Dhaka, in Bangledesh, is reportedly home to the most acid attacks each year with an average of one woman doused in chemicals each week.

According to Make Love Not Scars vice president Tania Singh the true annual number of victims worldwide is in the thousands.

She said local governments do not report all cases, some women die before a criminal case is launched and some choose to stay with abusive families.

"We had one case where a woman was attacked by her husband three times and she still continues to live with him," Ms Singh said of a victim who sought assistance from the organisation, which helps survivors reconstruct their lives and in many cases their faces.

ActionAid spokeswoman Carol Angir told news.com.au the dowry, also referred to as a "bride price" was the most common reason for the attacks in third world countries.

"There are a great number of reasons that men attack women, but the most prolific is associated with bride price," she said.

"Her husband will often attack her as an act of revenge.

"Attacks are generally meant to disfigure, and they do.

"This is made worse by the fact that in many countries where acid attacks take place regularly, there are very few treatment facilities. In Bangladesh there is just one burns unit in the country."

As for the West, Middlesex University's Dr Simon Harding, said: "Acid was once a weapon of last resort but may now be the first".

"It's used by gangs, if a business deal goes wrong or someone owes money," Dr Harding said.

"People can have a legitimate reason for having them.

"It's not prohibitive to carry bleach, you can buy it online or any DIY stores, it's difficult to prove any illegal motive in carrying it and you can hide it or disguise it in a drink bottle.

"A knife attack is attempted murder, but if you're caught in an acid attack it would be GBH."

Acid attacks in London have increased dramatically in recent years, and police and politicians are now mulling ways to make acid, or "face melters," more difficult to obtain.

"Most of the products can be bought off the shelf - so drain cleaner, oven cleaner - there are different types of sulfuric acid you can buy, and ammonia," east London Hackney borough Chief Superintendent Simon Laurence said.

According to criminologists, gang members may be swapping guns and knives for acid as a weapon of choice because possession is hard to monitor - but its impact on victims can be devastating.

INDIA

Women who survive acid attacks often hide themselves away.

It was that reason nine women disfigured by acid became defiant models Saturday at the first haute couture fashion show for the survivors of the growing scourge of acid attacks in India.

The women, nearly all victims of husbands or close family, paraded in gowns donated by top Indian designers including Rohit Bal, Ranna Gill and Archana Kochhar. None covered their face.

After her venture down the catwalk, mother of a young son Meena Khatoon, said: "I was very nervous."

But the New Delhi woman, who was attacked by her ex-husband, insisted she had a point to prove.

"People often looked away when I went outside. They would walk in the opposite direction when they saw me. I would face a lot of problems," Ms Khatoon said.

"But then one day I thought, if that's the way you think, so be it. I have to build my life, I want my son to study and I have to support him."

Khatoon now runs her own small business fixing mobile phones.

Reshma Bano Qureshi, 20, was attacked three years ago by her brother-in-law, who had thought he was throwing acid at his wife.

"I was scared it would happen again. I was bothered by how people reacted to me on the streets," she said.

"People would look away (or) say what happened to you? They would say no one will marry you. They'd say with a deformed face you're not beautiful. But I'm proud and confident of who I am. I want people to know the face is not what makes you beautiful, it is your heart.

The fashion show was an important way to boost survivors' confidence, Ms Singh said.

"They say 'we can't do it, we are pretty ugly' and we tell them that's not true you are not ugly, society is ugly. Now they can go back out there and they can tell the world that they don't have to hide their faces and scars. It is the world that needs to change its thinking."

BANGLADESH

Bangladesh's Dhaka is home to the highest number of acid attacks each year with an average of one woman doused in acid every week.

Neela Aminu Khatun is one of the thousands of victims of acid attacks since 1999. Her life changed forever in 2006 when her husband poured acid over her face in the pair's bed.

They had married when she was just 12 in forced nuptials. Two years later he turned on her because she had failed to pay a dowry - an amount of money the bride's family pays to the husband.

"My husband was angry for a long time because he claimed a dowry but my family couldn't provide one," she told ActionAid, an Australian-based organisation working with victims in Dhaka.

He fled after the attack, leaving Neela scarred for life and unable to come to grips with what she saw in the mirror.

"I spent six months in hospital. I was so depressed because I was in a closed room and my whole body was bandaged up, so I couldn't move. It felt like I was in a cage," she said.

"The first time the bandage came off I didn't see my face. But then after a few minutes I saw, and was just screaming, 'Who is this, who is this, is it me?'"

The problem is fuelled by the fact acid is relatively easy to find and cheap. A Bangladeshi goldsmith said that in some areas "you just ask traders for acid" and can buy it for less than $A1 a litre.

THE UK

London has emerged as a hot spot for acid attacks in recent years, with more than half of incidents taking place in the capital.

Andreas Christopheros is one of hundreds of people who have fallen victim to an escalating series of unprovoked acid attacks across the country. In the last 12 months alone, London has seen dozens of people severely injured in such incidents.

Acid attack victim Andreas Christopheros in September this year. Picture: Yohan Bonnet / Hans Lucas.
Acid attack victim Andreas Christopheros in September this year. Picture: Yohan Bonnet / Hans Lucas.

The number of cases more than doubled from less than 200 in 2014 to 431 in 2016, with Scotland Yard focusing on specific parts of the city, The Sun reported.

Data from the United Kingdom's National Health Service shows the number of victims requiring intensive specialist treatment for acid attacks is also on the rise, with the cost of rehabilitation and mental health treatment slapping the nation with a bill of almost AU$60,000 per victim.

Newham, in East London, had three times more acid attacks than the next highest borough, with almost 400 of London's 1,500 reports over the last five years happening there.

The borough - which includes Stratford's Olympic Park but also more deprived areas such as West Ham, Plaistow and Forest Gate - borders Hackney which also saw a spate of attacks in the summer.

Katie Piper was disfigured in an acid attack in 2008. She is one of hundreds of victims of acid attacks in the UK. Picture: Chris Jackson
Katie Piper was disfigured in an acid attack in 2008. She is one of hundreds of victims of acid attacks in the UK. Picture: Chris Jackson

Nearby Barking and Dagenham was the second biggest hot spot, whereas wealthier areas such as Kensington and Chelsea had the lowest level of attacks.

Areas such as the West Midlands and Essex have also seen large rises in acid attacks in recent years as reports soared from 340 in 2014 to 843.

Australian sisters Isobella and Prue Fraser were injured in an acid attack at a London nightclub in April this year.

Australian model Isobella Fraser and sister Prue were both victims of an acid attack in a London nightclub on April 18, 2017. Picture: @pruefraserr/Instagram
Australian model Isobella Fraser and sister Prue were both victims of an acid attack in a London nightclub on April 18, 2017. Picture: @pruefraserr/Instagram

But acid attacks have also taken place in quieter spots.

Nurse Joanne Rand In Frogmoor, Buckinghamshire, died after acid was thrown over her as she was sitting on a bench.

The 47-year-old care home worker suffered severe burns and died at Stoke Mandeville Hospital 11 days later.

Xeneral Webster, 18, from Hammersmith, west London, has been charged with murder and is due to appear at Reading Crown Court in early April next year.

Another tragic case involved an acid attack victim who died at a euthanasia clinic after he became paralysed and blind.

In November 2017, Towie star Ferne McCann's ex Arthur Collins was found guilty on 14 counts after throwing acid in a packed nightclub.

The Home Secretary Amber Rudd said she had plans to ban the sale of corrosive substances to under 18s.

The policy would bring acid in line with the law on the possession of knives in a public place and anyone caught could be imprisoned for up to 4 years.

She told the 2017 Tory Party Conference: "Acid attacks are absolutely revolting.

"You have all seen the pictures of victims that never fully recover. Endless surgeries. Lives ruined.

"We are going to stop people carrying acid in public if they don't have a good reason."

megan.palin@news.com.au | @Megan_Palin



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