Curbing Acid Violence in Uganda

As I mentioned in my first post, my interest in going to Uganda began with a Human Rights Quarterly dinner last fall. HRQ hosted an acid violence survivor from Uganda, Dr. Hanifa Nakirawa. With her was a Cincinnati based clinical psychologist, Dr. Angie Vredeveld.

Uganda Christian University has sent at least three L.L.M. students to study at UC Law in the last two years, and two of them are now lecturers at UCU.

One of them, Agaba Arnold Barigye, a 2016 graduate of UC’s L.L.M. program, encouraged UC and UCU’s law schools to develop a partnership. UCU began its John Sentamu Institute for Human Rights in 2017, and much of its library was donated by UC’s Urban Morgan Institute through Professor Lockwood.  (John Sentamu is the current Archbishop of York and originally from Uganda.)

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This is Julie. She has been the face of RISE and EAV’s campaign for a petition to Parliament to end acid violence. She was my FB picture most of the summer, and I was so happy to finally meet her.

One of the Institute’s first big projects was to work in conjunction with two nonprofits, RISE, based in Cincinnati, and End Acid Violence Uganda, based in Uganda, to develop legislation designed to curb acid violence and provide support to victims.

This project brought in an American law student intern to provide support for the research and development of a bill that would make stricter penalties for acid violence and provide support for victims of acid attacks.

I worked with primarily five other law students. Most of them were fourth year L.L.B. students who had completed their studies and final exams, and were waiting for graduation in early July. These students were also busy studying for the very high stakes exam to enter the 2017-18 bar class at the Law Development Centre. In Uganda, after one receives their L.L.B., she spends nine months taking a “bar course,” completion of which grants them a law license. There is only one center authorized to grant this license, and its seats are limited to about 400/year.

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Here is the team of law students who worked on researching and editing the bill. From L-R: Elijah, David, Steven, Monica, Denis and Joel.

So the law students I worked with were very dedicated to give up their time preparing for the most important exam of their lives to spend time working on a project for no credit and no pay.

Acid violence is normally a crime one associates with South Asia, but it is also in existence in Africa. Uganda, in particular, seems to have developed a problem with acid violence.

The victims are mostly women, though men are also affected. The reasons for the attacks are varied, either from failed love matches to property disputes. 90% of victims who survive an attack have facial disfigurement.

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These are the women from EAV who served as our focus group of survivors. From L-R: Christine, Jamidah, Julie, Ritah, and Reenah.

Being attacked by acid results in burns on that part of the body. Until it is washed off, the acid eats into one’s flesh and even bones. The pain is excruciating, and it continues long after the attack.

Every medical professional who has ever worked on a burn unit will tell you that it’s the most heartbreaking assignment due to the pain and agony their patients suffer.

After the initial treatment to remove the acid from the area and put the victim out of immediate medical danger, one is then subjected to surgery after surgery and treatment after treatment. While all of this is happening, the scar tissue build up results in the skin tightening and stretching, resulting in more pain.

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Mr. Semakula was attacked over a land dispute and lost his sight.

The social and psychological damage an acid attack creates is daunting indeed. In our superficial society, acid burn victims are frequently left by their significant others, fired, and unable to find more work and love. Victims told me of being turned away from applying for jobs, or being told in the final interview that you won’t get the job because of your scars.

When someone is jumped and their ribs and legs are broken, those bones heal in a few months, and they can eventually grow to have days where the anxiety after the attack can lessen or dissipate.

Victims of acid violence, however, do not have that good fortune. Every day when they wake up and look in the mirror, they are reminded of how a criminal forever changed their lives. The ones I have met during the course of my research spoke of always putting their back against a wall, being afraid to leave their house, and being rejected by their communities.

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Madina spoke passionately about the need for longer sentencing for the perpetrators of acid violence.

Additionally, sometimes the police do not prosecute the criminal, but instead encourage the parties to settle out of court. A frequent scenario is the criminal goes on trial while the victim is still in the hospital and unable to testify, so the criminal is released after a month or two. I spoke with one victim who, before the attack, was threatened by her attacker, and when she went to the police, they demanded money from her to investigate the incident.

Acid is readily available on the streets in Uganda. The developing world is not quite as specialized as the US is, so self-maintenance is common, and things are not thrown out if they are reusable, such as car batteries. Concentrated acids for cleaning or dissolving are much more commonplace here. A cup of acid costs 200 Ugandan shillings, which is the equivalent of a US nickel. By comparison, a bottle of water costs 1000 shillings, or a US quarter.

In a society where men own at least 80% of the land, women need to marry or find work to survive. Facial disfigurement can rob a woman of those options.

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Aminah credits her faith with helping her survive.

When I arrived, a rough draft of the bill was already written, and our first task was to proofread, make suggestions, and compare it to bills and laws from other nations. We found proposed or passed legislation in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Cambodia especially helpful. Pakistan and Bangladesh have seen a significant drop in acid attacks within a couple of years of their respective laws’ passage. My team made suggestions, and we discussed the feasibility of our suggestions.

Our next task was to determine the provisions for enforcement. We examined several options and looked into several of Uganda’s government ministries to find a good fit for an enforcement unit’s home ministry.

I will not go into details of the bill itself, because the final stage of lobbying Uganda’s Parliament is forthcoming, and bills often are adjusted during those final stages.

Another task we took on was gathering data and opinions from current acid violence survivors.  End Acid Violence Uganda was incredibly gracious in helping us with this, and put us in touch with several survivors that we could speak with and run our ideas by.

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Rebeccah has acid scars all over her torso from her attack.

RISE, the Cincinnati nonprofit, was instrumental in advertising the need for the bill through an online petition encouraging the Ugandan government to pass the bill when it comes before them.

One task RISE and End Acid Violence are working together on is the selling of crafts made by survivors to help support them. Several of the survivors I have met all know RISE’s director, Dr. Vredeveld, or “Dr. Angie,” as they call her, and were happy to meet someone else from Cincinnati.

Meeting with the survivors opened my eyes to the importance of justice and the tragedy of corruption preventing justice from happening. So many of the survivors had their cases go nowhere because the perpetrators were released while the survivors were in the hospital and unable to follow up on the case. And many of them had witnesses who refused to testify out of fear of reprisal from the perpetrator or his family.

If all goes well, when the bill is brought before the Ugandan Parliament later this year, the explanatory memorandum attached to the bill which I co-authored will be read aloud and become part of the bill’s interpretation in the future.

I have been awed by the courage and strength of the survivors I have met. Their beauty and hope is inspiring. So many of them said, “this is who I am now, so I have to adjust to life this way.”

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Animah’s family was so welcoming and wonderful. All these children hung around during our interview, yet they were quiet and polite!

It is my hope that my work here prevents acid violence, and makes life easier for the survivors. Fighting these sorts of battles is the reason that I went to law school. I have the Urban Morgan Institute, Uganda Christian University, RISE and End Acid Violence Uganda to thank for allowing me to take part in bringing justice to these beautiful survivors.

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