Acid attack survivor speaks to students

By Emily Brindley / Staff Writer

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Hanifa Nakiryowa stood in front of a crowd in the William Pitt Ballroom proudly wearing a gray blazer, oval glasses and her scars.

In 2011, at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, an unknown man threw something at Nakiryowa’s face after she had refused to bow to her then-husband’s demands that she quit work. The attack left Nakiryowa with severe scars across her face and body, and burned away the vast majority of her nose. Surgeons have performed 23 surgeries to date to reconstruct Nakiryowa’s face, the most recent in July of this year.

Nakiryowa came to the United States in search of opportunity after her attack, and is now a graduate student at Pitt studying international development and human security, with a focus on rights advocacy.

Nakiryowa has made her horrific experience a launching point for discussing women’s rights and violence, particularly in Uganda.

On Thursday night at 9 p.m., the African Students Organization collaborated with the Campus Women’s Organization and the African Studies Program to host Nakiryowa to discuss her experiences advocating for the rights of acid attack survivors worldwide.

In 2012, Nakiryowa created the Center for Rehabilitation of Survivors of Acid and Burns Violence in Kampala to raise awareness and create a community for Ugandan acid attack survivors. CERESAV also lobbies for new governmental policies to support acid attack survivors and prevent discrimination against them.

Acid attacks are so prevalent in Uganda in part because sulfuric acid is easily accessible and costs the equivalent of 70 cents for one liter, according to Nakiryowa.

“The culture [in Uganda] is intensely patriarchal. Women are viewed relatively,” Nakiryowa said. “Women are blamed for their own attacks, and they eventually succumb to that and they blame themselves.”

Attendees Thursday night could donate to the charity at the door.

After her attack, Nakiryowa said the Ugandan court system offered her no justice. Like many similar cases, Nakiryowa said the court did not file any charges, eventually lost interest and dropped the case.

Nakiryowa has no way to prove who organized the attack, but she said she believes it was her husband. Even if the unknown man who threw the acid was standing in a lineup of suspects, Nakiryowa said she wouldn’t be able to pick him out.

“Perpetrators who have the money do not do it themselves,” Nakiryowa said. “And because of the nature of the system, the chances of [the perpetrators] running away uncharged and free are really very high.”

The majority of acid victims in Uganda do not go out in public without veiling their faces, according to Nakiryowa, who said this further obscures the magnitude of the issue.

Because Ugandan culture shames and ostracizes acid victims, Nakiryowa had never seen an acid attack survivor until she became one.

“We have seen rigorous attention paid to various forms of violence, but not to acid attack violence,” Nakiryowa said. “People think that it is not their problem.”

Karamagi Rujumba, 37, lives in the North Side of Pittsburgh, but is originally from Kampala, Uganda, the same town as Nakiryowa. When he heard about Nakiryowa’s talk, he came to listen. Although he had heard about acid violence in other countries, Rujumba said he did not realize that the issue was widespread or that it affected Uganda.

“I was listening to a BBC program about a year and a half ago [about acid violence] … and I came away thinking that they have a big issue with acid-throwing in Pakistan,” Rujumba said. “I never thought about it as a Ugandan problem.”

Michelle Nkumsah, a junior social work major and the president of the ASO, said Nakiryowa’s talk was part of the organization’s effort to spread cultural awareness about issues that are less common in the United States.

According to Nkumsah, ASO collaborated with CWO so students could “make connections with themselves and see things in a different way.”

Suzy Hinkle, president of CWO, said the talk was an opportunity for Pitt students to recognize the prevalence of violence against women on both a national and global scale.

“People in Uganda and people in the United States are suffering similar problems,” Hinkle said. “I don’t know the prevalence of acid attacks in America, but that’s just one weapon against women.”

Nakiryowa’s discussion of “domestic violence and acid violence in Uganda, human rights, women and culture in Africa” worked to educate and enlighten the Pitt community about the perspectives of others — particularly of African women — according to Nkumsah.

“There is no kind of justice that can bring back our faces,” Nakiryowa said. “But we can stand out there to protect the next victim.”

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