After Gloria Kankunda was left badly scarred from an acid attack in Kampala, she was determined others should not face the same fate, leading a campaign to clamp down on the sale of acid and tougher penalties for those convicted.
Kankunda (33) was three months pregnant when she was attacked outside her home as she returned from a family party in the Ugandan capital.
“As we waited for the gate to be opened, the car door was pulled open and a man tried to pull me out,” said Kankunda, now a mother-of-two, who is pushing for legal changes to clamp down on acid attacks to be implemented soon in Uganda.
“I thought it was a robbery. Suddenly I felt a burning sensation on my face and body. That’s when it hit me that it might be acid,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The attack disfigured her face, blinded her in one eye and scarred over 70% of her body. She had more than 20 operations during two years in hospital in South Africa.
One of the other wives of her polygamous husband, Halima Nsimiire, was charged, along with two others, with attempted murder, but the case was dismissed because Kankunda was in hospital and could not testify in court.
But Kankunda’s case won national attention as her husband is Mwesigwa Rukutana, Uganda’s deputy attorney general.
Activists blame Uganda’s weak legal system for the prevalence of acid attacks in the east African nation. Charges are often not brought because of insufficient evidence, corruption or lack of support for victims.
“If I haven’t received justice despite the high profile nature of my case, what chance do the rest of the victims have?” Kankunda said. “These scars will stay with me forever. No amount of plastic surgery will remove them.”
POPULAR SUPPORT FOR CRACKDOWN
Kankunda set up the Centre for Rehabilitation of Survivors of Acid and Burns Violence (CERESAV) in 2012 to support other victims who often need months of reconstructive surgery and psychological help.
Most acid victims are women, attacked over domestic or land disputes, a rejected marriage proposal or spurned sexual advances. Attackers often target the woman’s head and face to maim, disfigure and blind her.
Pressure from campaigners helped nudge the Uganda parliament into passing in November the Toxic Chemicals Prohibition and Control Bill, which does not specifically mention acid attacks but was hailed by Gender Minister Muruli Mukasa as “a big step in the right direction”.
Ugandan politicians are focused on upcoming elections, and the bill has yet to receive presidential assent to make it law. President Yoweri Museveni, who has led Uganda since 1986, is widely expected to win another four year term on February 18.
An online petition Kankunda started in December to hasten the bill has attracted almost 300,000 signatures.
“It will be crucial to save the next person from falling victim,” she said.
Mukasa says the president will soon sign the bill that will classify acid as a controlled substance and regulate its sale.
“We shall ensure people who deal in the sale of acid and other restricted substances have special permits,” he said.
Only those needing acid for professional purposes, such as research, medicine, pharmaceuticals or agriculture, will be able to buy it, he said.
Concentrated sulphuric acid, intended for car batteries, is readily available from petrol stations and street sellers across Uganda for less than $1.
Globally, some 1,500 acid attacks are recorded each year, mostly in South Asia, Acid Survivors Trust International says, but many are not reported as victims are scared to come forward.
The extent of attacks in Uganda is not known as the offence is often classed as aggravated assault. Some 400 cases have been reported since 1985, Kankunda said, with two deaths recorded at Kampala’s Mulago hospital in 2015.
Kankunda wants to see attackers forced by law to pay their victims’ medical costs and stiff sentences for those convicted.
Attackers are usually charged with offences ranging from assault to grievous bodily harm and murder and there are no provisions to support victims.
India ordered a curb on acid sales in 2013 and made acid attacks a specific criminal offence, but acid remains easily available there, the Acid Survivors Trust International says.
“Let’s see how this (law) will work,” said Mukasa. “If there are gaps, we can always amend them.”
Hanifa Nakiryowa, co-founder of CERESAV, says she was attacked by her husband after she walked out on him.
“One day he called me to pick up my children at his house and suddenly acid was thrown at my face and body,” she said on CERESAV’s website. “My face felt as if it were on fire. My skin was literally melting away.”