The acid attack on British teenage volunteers Kirstie Trup and Katie Gee in Zanzibar stunned the world. But their horrifying experience isn’t unusual. It’s estimated that 1, 500 acid attacks take place every year around the globe. One woman who was seriously disfigured by an attack now spends her life helping other victims.
Hanifa Nakiryowa, 31, lost her nose and the use of her right eye after acid was thrown in her face. The mother of two has been left seriously disfigured and scarred, has trouble breathing and suffers pain from her injuries.
Hanifa, who lives in Uganda, was attacked as she picked her children up from her estranged husband’s home.
“When I reached his house I knocked on the door several times,” remembers Hanifa. “The next thing I knew this boy was nearby. He walked towards me, picked up something from a corner and threw it at my face. He threw the rest on the ground and took off.”
Hanifa cried for help and was heard by people nearby who came to her aid. Her youngest child - then aged 18 months - fell on the acid and also suffered burns.
Hanifa, who before the attack worked on a UNICEF project with victims of domestic abuse, says it was a few seconds after the acid was thrown before she felt burning.
“At first it was cold and heavy, like oil,” she recalls. “It was a few seconds before I felt the burning. Then when I looked at my clothes they were tearing off so I knew it was acid. It was so very painful. It is as if you have been dipped into hell fire. Imagine a splash of hot oil getting on to your skin. That feeling is all over your face and shoulders and arms.”
Hanifa spent two months in hospital before becoming an out-patient. Although the attack happened in 2011, she is still receiving treatment and undergoing reconstructive surgery and she says her daughters, now aged three and seven, still relive the trauma. Hanifa says: “My bigger daughter logs that experience whenever she draw pictures on paper. And my baby talks about it all the time - each time she looks at her scars."
No one has been convicted for the attack.
Now Hanifa works as an advocacy officer for Acid Survivors Foundation in Uganda. The organisation works in partnership with the charity Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) based here in the UK.
“When I was in hospital I saw many victims of acid attacks and I got so touched,” she says. “I felt I could do work in this particular area. I know the challenges they go through. I have been there. Like me, so many acid survivors find it hard to cope with life. This is something that comes suddenly and turns your life around. I try to talk to them, show them love and care and that they are not alone. I try to show them it is just the skin that got burnt, we are still the same people who can do the same things we used to do.”
Eighty per cent of acid attack victims are women and girls, according to ASTI. Attacks often occur as a violent act of revenge towards a girl or woman who has rejected a marriage proposal or spurned sexual advances - or a result of domestic or land disputes.
Executive director of ASTI, Jaf Shah, says: “The underlying reason for women being attacked is a form of gender discrimination. In most of the countries where there’s a higher prevalence of acid attacks, women tend to have an almost third class status in society and minimal access to human rights. They are discriminated against and that leads to violence being an acceptable form of control against women. Acid is just one weapon – it could be a knife, it could be a gun, it’s just a weapon to effectively disfigure and maim women and reassert fairly patriarchal systems.”
In Bangladesh the numbers have dropped significantly since the introduction of new legislation in 2002 which controlled the sale of acid and also offered stiff punishments for perpetrators, including the death penalty. In 2002 there were 496 reported cases. By 2012 there were less than 75.
There is also a direct link between industry and the number of attacks. In Pakistan, Bangladesh and Cambodia, a higher number of attacks take place in the areas where there is a cotton, rubber and jewellery industry. “These industries have a high use of acid and it’s relatively easy to purchase in those areas” explains Jaf.
Uganda sees approximately 30 attacks a year while in Europe and North America attacks are rare. There have been two known isolated cases of acid violence in the last six months in the UK, but Italy has seen an increase in attacks, with five since the beginning of this year.
Perhaps the most well-known victim in the UK is model Katie Piper who suffered third degree burns after a former boyfriend arranged for acid to be thrown in her face in 2008.
Jaf says: “In the developing world most countries just don’t have the infrastructure whether it be legal, judicial, or medical to support survivors, whereas in the UK, Europe and the US there are pretty robust police and judicial systems and strong and effective medical services to provide the necessary support.”
Funded by donations, ASTI campaigns for legislation to reduce the number of attacks in developing countries focusing on the sale of acid, levels of compensation and prosecution of perpetrators. It also provides support to survivors for the physical and psychological trauma they’ve experienced.
ASTI’s aim is a 90 per cent reduction in acid violence by 2025.
For now, Hanifa believes even one attack is too many.
She says: “I want to see a future free of this kind of violence. My future relies on having a peaceful world with no acid attacks and I’m working towards that which is why I am speaking out about it.”