“When I talk about discrimination of women and girls, I’ve gone through it. When I talk about oppression, I’ve gone through it,” said Hanifa Nakiryowa. “When I talk about violence, I’ve experienced it. When I talk about injustices, I have experienced all that. When I talk about inequality, I have experienced inequality.”
Hanifa Nakiryowa tells it like it is. Ms. Nakiryowa is a champion of fighting for women’s rights and for those who have been oppressed. Originally from Uganda, Ms. Nakiryowa started CERESAV, the Center for Rehabilitation of Survivors of Acid Violence, in Kampala, Uganda back in 2012 after a horrendous crime changed her life forever. While she was waiting to pick up her children from her ex-husband’s house, she was violently attacked with acid, and one of her children also sustained burns. In the aftermath of the attack, Ms. Nakiryowa was rushed to the hospital, where she would spend the majority of the next year recovering.
After her recovery and experiencing the increased oppression and challenges of navigating her own healing, Ms. Nakiryowa became an advocate for others who have been victims of acid attack violence. Her experience made it clear that there was a need to advocate on behalf of those who don’t have the voice to advocate for themselves. Her incredible work has led to public awareness and transformation of acid attacks in Uganda. “There is now general public awareness of acid attack violence in the country,” said Ms. Nakiryowa. “There are public conversations that we never had five years ago before I started CERESAV.”
Ms. Nakiryowa’s journey to finding her voice was a challenging one, but she was inspired by the many activists who came before her. Ugandan activists like Noerine Kaleeba and Miria Matembe were both pioneers who led the way in advocating for women’s rights and in giving a voice to marginalized groups. Holding on to these inspirational figures kept Ms. Nakiryowa going forward even when the obstacles seemed insurmountable. “If Noerine Kaleeba could make change with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in my country, I can make change with acid attack violence and gender-based violence, and oppression of women and girls as well. And indeed, a month ago my professor from the University of Pittsburgh went to Uganda to carry out research of the work that we have done over the past five years. He wrote me an email and said, ‘The acid attack cases and incidences have been reduced.’ And that’s true. Right now, we are focusing on saving lives and only taking care of three patients in the hospital for acid injuries.” The survivors in the community are now leading the campaign on the ground, enabling Ms. Nakiryowa to focus on other advocacy work.
Ms. Nakiryowa is now part of the Women’s Health Activist Movement Global (WHAMglobal) team at the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, continuing her advocacy work to empower women and improve maternal and child health outcomes. She now serves as an inspiration for other new health activists, similar to how she was inspired by activists who came before her.