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Acid attacks on men related to gang violence, say experts

By Ruth Evans
5 Live Investigates

image captionAnonymous victim: "As I was rubbing my face it felt like my skin was coming off"

Nearly twice as many men as women are being injured in acid attacks in England, hospital figures suggest.

Surgeons treating acid burn victims say male injuries are often related to gang violence or criminal activity.

Eighty-one male patients were treated in hospital due to corrosive substance assaults in 2012-13. The figure for women was 49.

One former gang member told the BBC acid attacks were intended to humiliate a victim, rather than kill them.

Statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show that last year 62% of patients treated in England following acid attacks were male.

However, globally it is estimated that 80% of victims are female.

"Acid violence in the UK is very different from the numbers and the types of people that are affected in other countries," said Baljit Dheansa, a burns surgeon at Queen Victoria Hospital, West Sussex.

"In the UK it seems to be primarily men that are the victims of acid violence.

"They can be young men or older men, and it tends to be related to gang violence or to situations where there is some criminal activity going on," he added.

Jermaine Joseph Lawlor, a former gang member who now works for a charity, said he was aware of gangs using acid in attacks on their rivals.

"If someone sees a knife wound or a scar on your face there's a chance a stereotype is going to be created that [you] don't mess with me, I'm negative, I'm a bad boy - but with an acid attack it's so degrading," he said.

"It's not a knife attack, it's not a gun attack, it's an acid attack - we don't want to kill you but we want to humiliate you."

He added that people with these types of injuries are regarded with pity, rather than being "scary or intimidating".


image captionPolice e-fit of one of the teenagers suspected of carrying out an acid attack in Oldham

One male victim in his 40s, who does not want to be identified, was attacked by two teenagers while he was walking in Oldham.

"It was a really bad burning sensation. As I was rubbing my face it felt like my skin was coming off. For the first couple of hours I thought I was going to lose my eyesight."

The man was treated at a burns unit in Manchester. He was not left with permanent injuries but was extremely distressed by the attack.

"I'm not sleeping. I'm having flashbacks. I'm having counselling," he said.

He now feels unable to go out on his own.

Greater Manchester Police released e-fits of the suspects but have not yet found the men. Officers believe it was a random attack.

Dr Loretta Trickett, from Nottingham Law School, has carried out research on gang violence.

"What's probably going on in a gang context, is this is a cheap, quick and effective way of making your mark," she said.

"It's accessible to most people in a way that obtaining a gun is perhaps more difficult for some gang members that are lower down the hierarchy."

She believes disfigurement carries shame for gang members as it represents a permanent and visible reminder that they were unable to defend themselves.

"The whole concept of victimisation is often very difficult for men," she said.

"And it's particularly difficult, of course, within a gang culture which advocates toughness and violence, because this is the only form of masculinity that these young men have."

She believes most of these attacks are unlikely to show up in criminal statistics as they are seldom reported to the police.

Despite this, figures obtained by the BBC show that the Metropolitan Police recorded 66 acid attacks in 2012-13. Fifty of these attacks were on men, and 16 on women.

Gender based violence

Acid attacks occur all over the world and most of the victims are women according to the Acid Survivors Trust International, a charity that raises funds for victims.

"Eighty per cent of victims around the world are women," said Jaf Shah, the organisation's executive director.

"And 30% of them are girls under the age of 18."

The organisation says in many cases the attacks are a form of gender-based violence, because a young girl or woman spurns sexual advances or rejects a marriage proposal.

You can listen to the full report on 5 live Investigates on Sunday, 10 November, at 11:00 BST on BBC 5 live.

More on this story

  • How many acid attacks are there?