Hanifa Nakriyowa had escaped an abusive marriage just three months earlier before she became scarred for life, she had gone to her estranged husband home one Sunday evening to pick up their daughters when a man dressed as a security guard poured acid on her face. She remembers screaming in pain as the corrosive liquid burned her skin. By the time neighbors rushed her to the Hospital, doctors could do little more than keep her comfortable and give her seared skin time to heal. “I was literally raw and faceless she said, my nose had fallen off”. I had lost one eye, the scarring had disfigured my entire face but I had a voice says Hanifa . In 2012 she formed Centre for Rehabilitation of Survivors of Acids and Burns Violence (CERESAV) , to raise awareness about acid violence in Uganda and to give survivors a place where they felt belonged. Hanifa shares her very inspiring story in this interview.
Being the firstborn in the family, I was raised and trained to take care of my siblings, trained to take on values that will be exemplary to my siblings and expected to take on family values as a girl child. While in school, I always demonstrated maturity in whatever I did, which as you may know is a common feature with all firstborns in our African society especially girls. This maturity always led me leadership roles from my earliest school years. As a student in leadership role, I was expected to take good care of the little kids in school. I was also expected to demonstrate good character, be clean, handle myself with respect and be smart in class to be a good role model to the kids I took care of. If I failed to observe good character, then I would be punished in front of the school parade which would of course be an embarrassment that no one wants to go through. There are days I would blunder of course as a child and get my dose of it. Such blunders would help me get more careful. I had to work harder to save myself of the likely embarrassments. I would say all this must have prepared me to be the person I am today.
My Acid Attack Experience changed me
I never knew about acid attacks until it occurred to me. at first I didn’t know what consequences it would have on my life. I had ever seen any survivor of acid attacks in Uganda all my life. Until one month after my attack, while still in hospital, I was visited by a young girl in her 20s who had been had survived the attack at 18 years. Seeing how the acid had disfigured her, listening to her share my story, I broke down and cried. I sobbed for her. I felt so much pain for her that I even forgot all about mine. I could not imagine how someone could be so cruel to ruin such a young girls’ life. Then I saw many other acid attack patients come in each new day. I got so overwhelmed and wondered how this could be happening in our society and many of us have no idea. That was my turning point. I focused on how best I could use y personal experience to raise the awareness of the problem.
Inspiration behind “CERESAV”
My personal experience and my encounters with other survivors. The shock that my attack brought with it to me, my children, my family and friends. The rate at which acid attacks patients were brought into the hospital while I was there. Then when I came out of the hospital, the condemnation I suffered, the ostracism, socioeconomic discrimination and stigma that I experienced firsthand. The public perception and the fear that it brings especially associated with the injustices. The trauma that it brought with it on me and especially my children. “At least if I never knew, others should know and run for their lives. My daughters will not have to go through the same lifecycle. I just cannot sit back and do nothing. I cannot continue to hide these scars. Women cannot continue to hide their burned faces. We have to break the silence. Something has to be done and if I don’t do it, who will?”. These are the kind of statements that ran in my head each time I cleaned my maimed face.
Being the only organization in Uganda advocating for victims of burns
That has changed recently, thanks to the power of sensitization and lobbying. But while it was still the only organization advocating for acid attack survivors, it always got overwhelming trying to meet needs of the survivors in the face of limited resources. These are people whose dreams have been almost shuttered, majority of them do not have any level of education to compete favorably in the labor market, even for those with some education, they face social and economic stigma and discrimination, many would not want to employ a person with a maimed face. Appearance play a very central role in the labor market politics. As a result, survivors’ expectations were exponentially higher than the organization could meet. As far as policy challenges are concerned, the organization advocates for social justice to address and end acid attack violence, which, to many is a “drop in the ocean” as far as statistics are concerned in relation to other “pertinent issues” like HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Rebel wars among others. But every life matters. Acid attacks have spillover effects from the direct victim, to their children, families, relatives, friends and anyone they come across. The effects of acid attacks leave lasting scars on anyone’s memory. It is the most horrendous form of violence. We cannot look at it quantitatively. Its qualitative effects are just way too devastating.
Other project and activities?
I am involved in activities aimed at empowering women and girls especially through sensitization seminars and lectures. This I do during my free time since I spend most of the time in school working on my assignments and school projects. Plus, I have a full time job taking care of my two daughters.
My greatest reward
Seeing a ray of hope shining across faces of four children. These four children were left homeless in December 2012 when their mother died after an acid attack by their father. Helpless and hopeless, the family cried out to me for help. But I could not take up the responsibility. It broke my heart. Each time I came back home to my children, my heart bled for the other four children who no longer had a mother to run to. I am the one they ran to and called mom each time I went to them. I reached out to a journalist friend who agreed to feature an appeal I made to the public in the newspaper. The article was read by one amazing lady who runs a children’s home. She took in the four children on the Christmas eve of 2012. I felt that was the best Christmas gift these children could ever get in life.
Most Memorable Moments and Awards
My most memorable award is my scholarship to attend graduate school after my acid attack. This gave me an opportunity to redefine and re-strategize my life and my career. After my attack, everything seemed to get out of place. I was working for the UNICEF program on a contract which would end. I had no idea what next I would do with my life after my contract ended. Everything I did for the organization largely depended on my salary. I saw myself in the middle of nowhere after my UNICEF contract. I wanted to go back to school but there was no success with all the applications I made. I continued unceasingly because I knew I needed to go back to school and redefine my career path. Finally, I was accepted into the university of Pittsburgh graduate school of public and international affairs to pursue a master’s degree in international development and human security studies
On Africans not well informed on the danger of acid attack
I do not think so. It is not just African, but this is a global gap. I don’t even think that the perpetrators actually know the dangers of their actions when they are plotting such attacks. Otherwise no human being in their human sense would think of such inhumane act on humanity. I have encountered many people from different parts of the world who question what acid attacks are and what the dangers are. Many people ask me how I cope with it. This is the very reason I continue to be actively involved in sensitization activities. Many people including the perpetrators need to know the dangers of such attacks. Many people need to know that it is not a problem of the poor, or the unlearned, or the informed. Just anyone is vulnerable to such attacks. In recent years acid attacks are no longer a problem of poor Africa, or poor Asia, or poor south America. It has now become a problem of rich Europe and America. This has to stop. People need to know. Everyone needs to get involved before it knocks on their doors.
Who and what inspire you to be better?
My daughters. They are the strongest, most resilient human beings I know. They give me countless reasons to stand tall in the midst of storms and darkest days. Then my faith in God keeps me going. I don’t know how I would deal with a maimed face if I had no God. I cannot even imagine or picture what that life without God would be for me. Maybe I would not be here. For every move I make successfully, I know it is God at work behind the scenes. He has held my hand so firmly and tenderly that in most cases I even forget I have no face. Leave alone the face you see today after over 36 surgeries, ranging from scar releases and skin grafts, to complete nose reconstructions from nothing left except one eye.
Being an overcomer make me a woman of Rubies
I am an overcomer. I have been trampled on, picked up the pieces and stood up tall and moved on even more determined to do better than I would ever do my entire life.
Inspiring word for women all over the world
Women are created to move the world. We are shakers of this world, that is why the world is so afraid of strong women. If you are being oppressed or intimidated or abused, then you have a strength your oppressor/abuser/intimidator cannot stand. If you have the chance to tap into your inner strength, do not wait until it is too late. Because we are the most resilient of humans, we tend to cave in and build resilience to tolerate all the negative forces. You are not all the negative things you have been told you are. I never thought I was this strong. I had to be pushed to the edge to tap into my inner strength. You do not have to wait. If you are not comfortable in your skin because of what you have been told, you are not where you should be. Search for yourself from within.