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Date rape drug Rohypnol appears in East Africa

By Christina Okello

Cases of sexual assault involving the drug known as Rohypnol, have been reported in universities in Tanzania, Nigeria and Uganda. Healthcare professionals are warning the general public to be on the alert when going out to avoid having their drinks spiked.

The last incident was reported only two weeks ago in Tanzania.

"These cases lately have been rampant," confirmed Aristarch Kiwango, a law professor at the University of Dar es Salam, one of two institutions where students have allegedly been drugged and raped.

"They are hanging out with their friends and then they get drugged through their drinks, and after having been drugged they end up getting raped sometimes," he told RFI.

Tasteless and odorless, Rohypnol can easily be slipped into a victim's drink undetected. It makes he or she extremely drunk and disorientated--sometimes within ten minutes.

"These particular cases, they do taint the reputation of the universities involved," Kiwango affirms. "So what you find is that they have the information concealed for a while. But with the wake of social media, with Whatsapp and Facebook and so forth, it's coming out."

On the continent, most people have barely heard of date rape drugs like Rohypnol or the liquid form of ecstasy GHB.

From sleeping pill to rape drug

Originally Rohypnol was often prescribed to treat many of the symptoms associated with surviving war, such as insomnia.

"There's a big demand for the drug in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, because of the wars that occured there," pharmacist David Ekau told RFI from Kampala.

Patients explained to him "that they watched their loved ones being hacked to death and would keep replaying the scene in their minds. They needed Rohypnol so that they could sleep at night," he said.

A tranquilizer ten times more powerful than valium, the benzodiazepine class drug can render a victim completely powerless. 

But concerns were raised last year in Uganda when a male customer bought the drug as part of a plan to rape a female target.

David Ekau says the particular pharmacy that sold him the drug has now stopped supplying it, like the rest of the country.

Unlike the university cases reported in Dar es Salam, Ekau says that date rape drugs in Kampala are predominantly linked to prostitution.

Not just women

"Recently the police identified that there are some gang groups and robbers who use the drug on their victims to rob their valuables," he said.

Patrick Onyango, Kampala's police spokesman has dealt with such cases: "It's the prostitutes that use it on men, but we don't know exactly which drug. We pick them up from a guesthouse and we investigate. But sometimes they don't know the prostitute they are using, so it is hard for us to arrest them."

Memory loss is a recurrent symptom of date-rape drugs such as Rohypnol and GHB, making it difficult for victims to report a crime they cannot even remember.

Difficult justice

But that isn't the only challenge for students in Tanzania. "Many are refusing to speak out because of pressure from universities to keep them quiet," Kiwango explains.

"If you take your university to court you're putting your academic career in jeopardy."

The stakes are incredibly high and the chances of getting justice remain thin.

"The difficulty of proving a drug-assisted rape is not to be underestimated," insists female rights advocate Lisa Vetten, who has accompanied many women in South Africa preparing for trial.

"What was also really difficult was the way they got labelled as 'sluts' who used drugs, which meant that they were not believed and were treated as irresponsible 'liars' who changed their minds after consensual sex and who were trying to cover up their drug use by blaming the 'poor', 'innocent' man."

Research has shown that Rohypnol has no gender bias and affects both men and women.

"Health professionals should be concerned because of the risk of abuse," insists pharmacist David Ekau, who advocates that the drug be used only as a sleep aid.

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