Attacks using acid are becoming more frequent in Uganda. Up to 2003, there were only 145 recorded attacks, but over the last three years, there have already been 87. Survivors often suffer from severe emotional and psychological trauma, while the perpetrators can be difficult to catch. Voice of America English to Africa’s Machrine Birungi reports from Kampala.
Sulfuric acid is commonly used in car and motorcycle batteries. Today, it’s being used to disfigure perceived enemies, including business competitors and cheating spouses and lovers.
The weapon is cheap and easy to find – it sells for just $1.80 in local markets. It can also be obtained from petrol stations and school laboratories.
The Uganda Acid Survivor’s Foundation is the only organization in the country working to support and empower people attacked with acid.
Stella Amony, the executive director of the group, explains why attacks are increasingly becoming common in Uganda. “Guns are not easily accessible to everyone in the community, but acid is accessible, and anyone can buy acid from wherever," she says. "There are no restrictions from accessing the acid. So community members have realized that this is a very good weapon, and some people are not getting real heavy punishments for this.”
Acid attack survivors often face serious problems in getting legal recourse. Poverty, corruption, and ignorance of the legal system often keep assailants from being punished.
Regina Namatovu Sekiwoko, a university graduate, was attacked three years ago. Her face was completely disfigured, and she has never found her attacker.
“It was on 1 July 2004, we were on our way home with my husband, and we were attacked by a person who up to us," she explained. "Today, I [still] don’t know who that person was. In Uganda, the punishment given to acid attacker is so poor and unfair to the victims. For example, my suspected attacker was charged with assault, but I feel life imprisonment should be the best punishment. They just [picked up] someone who had my phone. [But] when I went to the Criminal Investigations Department Offices they said [they] didn’t have a suspect. So it ended there. Up to today I [still] don’t know who burnt me and the reason why I was burnt.”
Police released the woman who had her cell phone because there was no evidence that she was the one who threw the acid, or who initially stole the phone.
Amony says social problems, including high levels of violence, are behind the acid attacks. She says that many people use violence as a way of solving family disputes.
She says many people think the victims are mostly women.
“That’s the conclusion that many people have, but we have realized that there are some men who are attacked. Forty-five percent of the survivors are men," noted Amony. "Unlike some countries where you find that the main targets are women because of cultural reasons, here it is more or less proportional…. We have children, too. Children become targets. For instance, if a mother is separated from her husband and the mother is not willing to go back, the father could use a child as a target to hurt the woman.”
After acid attacks, discrimination makes it difficult for the survivors to find work and to create successful self-employment opportunities. In addition, many survivors lose confidence in themselves.
Faced with this challenge, the Uganda Acid Survivor’s Foundation has set up an income-generating unit to help survivors produce pressure garments – including masks, chin straps, sleeves and gloves – that protect the burned skin and promote healing.
“We are four in the unit and we are all survivors," explained Regina Namatovu Sekiwoko, who works in the pressure garment unit. "What happens is that we get referrals from different hospitals. We measure the area [described by the doctor] that requires a pressure garment. After measuring, we make the patterns and [then sew the garments].”
The Acid Survivor’s Foundation says acid attack survivors need special attention. As a result, it's created a department of social workers who provide psychological and social support. It also encourages peer counseling and exchanges that help the survivors develop coping strategies.
The foundation also has a legal rights education program for survivors. The group, along with the NGO called Justice and Rights Associates, is lobbying politicians and the public for legislation to protect survivors and crack down on attackers.
The foundation and its legal partners have also formed a monthly working group to discuss ways of regulating the acid trade.