Earlier this month, as Easter Sunday gave way to the early hours of bank holiday Monday morning, hundreds of people were packed into the basement space of Mangle nightclub in East London, celebrating a long weekend and no work the next day.
It was shortly after 1am when their carefree night was brought to an abrupt halt. As people began to scream, an alarm was raised, smoke filled the dancefloor and the venue was evacuated.
An argument is believed to have broken out in the club, resulting in corrosive acid being sprayed into the crowd. Twenty people were hurt — and two victims, a man and a 22-year-old woman, were each blinded in one eye. Others were treated for severe burns. One victim, Sophie Hall, was on a birthday night out with friends and suffered permanent scarring. “The pain is indescribable. It feels like your skin is eating itself,” she said.
Three men were arrested in connection with the attack, including Arthur Collins, the boyfriend of reality TV star Ferne McCann. But, while this horrific incident might have been pushed further on to the front pages by its vague celebrity connection, it's actually the latest in an alarmingly steep increase in acid attacks in the UK. In London, the number of acid attacks increased from 261 in 2015 to 454 last year. Nationwide, attacks are believed to have risen by 30 per cent in two years.
Figures suggest that, in the capital, men are twice as likely to be attacked with acid as women — perhaps because it's now thought to be the weapon of choice among gangs, who are swapping knives and guns for a bottle of bleach. As an 18-year-old was quoted in The Sunday Times as saying: “You can get that for, like, £5 and f*** someone’s whole life up.”
It's not a coincidence that these attacks end in disfigurement and really difficult life experiences for women. It's deliberate on the part of the attacker. It's about taking away control
Reported numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme last week, Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Kearton of Suffolk Police, the National Police Chief Council’s spokesperson on corrosive attacks, said: “I do fear this is a hidden crime and that some of the victims are in fear of reprisal and don’t come forward.”
Around the world, the targets of acid attacks are predominantly female — it’s estimated around 80 per cent. In India, there are an estimated 1,000 attacks every years. Women are assaulted for rejecting marriage proposals or sexual advances, or because their husbands are jealous. By throwing acid on them, the intention is not usually to kill, but to ruin someone’s face, their body, their lives — to make them ashamed or scared to go out in public again.
“It's not a coincidence that these attacks end in disfigurement and really difficult life experiences for women,” says Rachel Krys, co-director of End Violence Against Women Coalition. “It's deliberate on the part of the attacker. It's about taking away control and stopping them operating in a public space.”
Earlier this month, former Miss Italy finalist Gessica Notaro, who was severely disfigured earlier this year when her ex-boyfriend allegedly threw acid into her face, revealed her scars on TV. “I want you to see what he did to me. This isn’t love.”
There were also reports this week that 21-year-old Jane Park, the youngest ever Euromillions winner, had to go into hiding after she received a Snapchat message from someone threatening to pour acid over her face. “Eat your heart out Katie Piper,” they said — a reference to the TV star whose ex-boyfriend ordered an acid attack on her in 2008.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of acid attacks is just how easy they are to carry out. Restrict or ban certain acids, and people still have access to a whole array of household cleaning items that can ruin a life in minutes.
“When you see an increase in any sort of violent attack, it is incredibly scary and we have to make sure that the response is that this is completely unacceptable,” says Krys. “Violent perpetrators will always find a way of being violent perpetrators. You have to challenge the much bigger problem, which is why some men feel entitled to have violent power and control over women, whether that's sexual violence or physical violence like acid attacks.”