On Wednesday, officials were stunned after arresting a suspected smuggler carrying banned cosmetics disguised as a child on her back.
The officials from the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) nabbed the woman as she attempted to smuggle the goods into Uganda from DRC Congo.
According to the URA’s commissioner of corporate affairs Ian Rumanyika, they had received intelligence reports that smugglers were camouflaging banned cosmetics as babies and ferrying them across the border.
“We got information that some ladies were using a cover of carrying babies to smuggle in some contrabands which in specific are cosmetics,” Rumanyika told Ugandan Monitor.
A statement from URA said that the woman was apprehended as she attempted to cross the border across a river.
“On face value, it's a mother carrying a child on her back. In reality, it’s a smuggler bringing in carefully concealed banned cosmetics from DRC.
“Intel had been gathered about this smuggling mode. Mpondwe enforcement nabbed her as she crossed via a shallow point of River Rubiiha,” read the statement.
The suspect, whose identity is yet to be revealed is set to be charged in Kampala after recording a statement at Mpondwe Police Station.
The arrest comes barely a week after the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) banned at least 177 cosmetic products for containing Hydroquinone, a depigmenting agent which decreases the formation of melanin in the skin, hence a lighter complexion.
The business of selling skin lightening creams and soaps Africa estimated to be worth billions every year has suffered a blow in recent years as governments moved to ban the importation of the products.
In 2018, Rwanda banned skin lightening products, leading to a government-led crackdown that saw thousands of bottles seized from shop shelves.
How bleaching works
Aside from Hydroquinone, another common ingredient found in skin-lightening soaps and creams is mercury.
Like Hydroquinone, when applied onto the skin, mercury inhibits the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 40% of women in Africa bleach their skin and Nigeria leads with a staggering 77%. Skin bleaching can lead to kidney and liver failure, cancer, psychosis and brain damage in fetuses.
Kenya’s most publicized case of skin bleaching involved socialite Vera Sidika. While blaming society’s standard of beauty for pushing her to bleach, she claimed to have spent Sh17 million on skin lightening treatment in the United Kingdom.
“My body is my business and it is a money maker. Society promotes skin lightening or bleaching. When you walk into modelling agencies, the girls who get picked for jobs are usually fair-skinned,” she said.
Internationally, incarcerated dancehall musician Vybz Kartel has been on the forefront promoting skin bleaching, even releasing a song titled ‘Cake Soap’ after a Jamaican soap claimed to make one’s skin tone lighter.
In 2017, the global skin-lightening industry was worth $4.8 billion, and it is projected to grow to $8.9 billion by 2027.