Fighting acid attacks in Uganda
Zarika Nanyonga from Luwero district in central Uganda was sleeping soundly at night when her former boyfriend slipped into her bedroom, threw acid on her and ran away. The incident happened just a day before her marriage to another man.
Aisha Kigozi, who ran a boutique along Kampala's high Street, is another acid attack victim. "I look very scary -- people run away from me... I have lost my business," she says with tears in her eyes. Now she is at the mercy of her relatives. Her boyfriend also abandoned her.
Uganda is perhaps the only African country where there has been an alarming rise in acid attacks in recent years. Authorities at the Mulago Hospital in Kampala, the country's largest, say that out of the 300 burn patients admitted in 2004, 17 per cent were acid victims. Most of the patients were in their early 30s and the male-female ratio was 1: 1. 1.
However, according to a study conducted by the University of Toronto (in 2003), 80 per cent of the burn victims in Uganda are acid attack victims. The study stated that in 33 per cent of the cases, marital discord was a big issue. In most cases, the men wanted to disfigure the women and inflict pain on them.
However, there are also examples of men being attacked. James Kiwanuka was disfigured by his business rivals. "His relatives abandoned him perhaps because of huge medical costs," says Dr Beera Kiiza of Mulago Hospital.
Organisations like the Uganda Acid Survivors Foundation (UASF), established in 2002, have tried to respond to the current crisis. They already have 300 acid victims as members whom they are helping to get justice. "Some attackers never get caught. If they are caught, there are too many legal delays and justice is denied to the victims," says Carla Fajard, spokesperson for the UASF.
So far, the Ugandan police have arrested only 25 men between 2003-2004. If convicted, they face a maximum sentence of seven years.
One of the most vocal campaigners for the cause of acid attack victims has been Justice Julia Sebutinde (a judge based in Kampala), who recently walked five km to raise awareness about the issue.
Acid attacks are also being seen as a social reaction to extreme poverty induced by long years of war (attacks started in 1996). Only 0.1 per cent of the Ugandans earn the equivalent of $25,000 per annum and the inequality of income is growing at an alarming rate, according to a Makercre University study. The rising incidence of acid attacks appear to be a warning that many Ugandans have started resorting to violence to solve social and economic problems.
Some media reports suggest that attackers are sometimes paid as little as $5 for the job.
Sebutinde recently stated that the authorities also need to regulate the sale of acid. A litre of sulphuric acid costs $10 and can be easily bought from a motor mechanic's shop. "There should be a law to regulate the sale of acid, so that buying acid is not as easy as buying soda," Sebutinde said.
However, several doctors feel that the growing campaign against acid attacks may turn out to be counterproductive. They fear that it assures the culprits that their terror strategy is effective. In fact, even the University of Toronto report stated: "The alarming trend of acid assault campaigns may give potential assailants more ideas on how to carry out such attacks."
— News Network