Now is the time for acid acquisition legislation

By James Lutaaya Esq, Uganda:

On Friday 28th February 2014, while Uganda was still abuzz with the excitement brought about by the newly signed anti-Homosexuality and anti-Pornography laws, a young girl, at the prime of her life, lost the battle for life after a five month battle with acid injuries inflicted on her by an embittered ex-boyfriend, Andrew Francis Obirai. The girl, Dorothy Atim, a sales representative with the New Vision died in Mulago Hospital's intensive care unit.

Atim is not the first one to die from one such attack, many women and sometimes men are killed or have to live with the devastating effects of acid attacks. A practise that is fast becoming common in Uganda! This atrocity called acid throwing, acid attackor vitriolage, is a form of violent assault defined as the act of throwing acid or a similarly corrosive substance onto the body of another “with the intention to disfigure, maim or torture or kill. Perpetrators of these attacks throw acid at their victims, usually at their faces, burning them, and damaging skin tissue, often exposing and sometimes dissolving the bones. The most common types of acid used in these attacks are sulphuric and nitric acid. Hydrochloric acid is sometimes used, but is much less damaging. The long term consequences of these attacks may include blindness, as well as permanent scarring of the face and body, along with far-reaching social, psychological, and economic difficulties.

Despite the high rise in these attacks and their devastating effects on victims' physical, mental, psychological, social and economic lives, its acquisition remains very easy with lax regulation on it. This means that jilted lovers, business rivals and any aggrieved person can easily acquire this acid and use it to harm the target of their grievance.

As is with most crimes in Uganda, it's not the lack of law but its implementation that leaves victims without closure. In acid violence cases, the laws are in place but preferred charges are usually attempted murder which is hard to prove since “intent to murder” is not easy to establish compared to causing grievous harm where intent to maim or permanently disfigure is clear following the targeted parts of the body which are cosmetic (face, chest and arms).

There is also no specific period to prosecute and determine acid violence cases just like in other criminal cases, since the determining factors range from availability of witnesses, evidence and trial magistrates and prosecutors. Perpetrators can also be granted bail on grounds of fair hearing especially because their victims are usually unable to testify in court since they are still receiving treatment as was the case with Atim, whose attacker Obirai was able to get bail despite his grievous crime and his case has been adjourned a couple of times to 13th March 2014 since October 2014 when he first appeared in court.

For other such cases, there's usually more than one offender making it harder to prove conspiracy since the mastermind of the crime is usually not the one who carries out the final act of violence and in many cases is able to go unpunished. There is therefore a need to tighten these loop holes so that the law becomes more effective and preventative.

Apart from having good laws and policies to prevent and provide justice to acid victims, Uganda also needs to look into the medical and social support acid victims require. The burns centre at Mulago national referral hospital is poorly funded and hence not able to provide all the treatment required by these victims and yet in many cases they are unable to afford treatment in the better equipped private hospitals or travelling out of the country. The Acid Survivors Foundation Uganda, the only such organisation providing support to many acid survivors in the country has reduced its work due to lack of adequate funding.

Dorothy Atim's life came to an unfortunate end but it can also be inspiration for all Ugandans to ensure that our laws are implemented, that acid and corrosive chemicals are not easily accessible to the general public and our medical facilities are well equipped to handle acid burn victims. To support those whose lives have already been altered by such attacks and ensure we protect everyone else from such atrocities, let us say no to acid attacks! We all deserve a life; like the poet Rabindranath Tagore said, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”.

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