Women and human rights activists in Uganda are appealing to the government to expedite the passing of laws and implement policies that will protect women and girls against gender based violence (GBV) that is reported to be on the increase.
Several media and research show that many women are often victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, forced prostitution (survival sex), trafficking, forced and early marriage, as well harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation.
Apart from some women dying from these acts of GBV, many women have got gynaecological disorders, unwanted pregnancies, adverse pregnancy outcomes, sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, mental distress and stigma.
“Violence against women has become a cancer and the government should allocate more money in combating violence against women,” says Rita Aciro, the Coordinator of Uganda Women’s Network. She says women are increasingly facing gender based violence in physical, sexual, economic and emotional forms.
Police report on GBV
For the fist time, the police last year recorded cases of Domestic Violence as separate crimes in its annual Crime Report relased in March 2009. A total of 137 Cases were reported to police in 2008, in which 156 persons died. But these figures show only cases that resulted in death, meaning that most GBV cases are reported when they result in death. This means that many GBV incidents continue to be recorded as threat to violence, assaults, and sexual related crimes.
It is only in the category of homicides that the police have carved out specific domestic violence related cases. The figure of 156 Domestic Violence cases does not say how many of these were women, but the Inspector General of Police, Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura says the majority of the victims of domestic violence are women.
In comparison, the police recorded only four terrorism crimes, but apart from already having an Anti Terrorism Act in place, many other laws have been made and more are still being made to boost the fight against terrorism. A case in point is the Interception of Communication Bill which seeks to legalise the interception of communication suspected to pose a security threat to the country. Also, while only 11 electoral related offenses were reported to police in 2008, there is widespread concern over electoral malpractices from all political actors. But little progress is being made towards a law on Gender based Violence which is affecting much more Ugandans.
Most Gender Based Violence cases not reported
Tina Musuya, the Executive Director of the Center for Domestic Violence Prevention says the increasing cases of violence against women that are being reported are just a tip of an iceberg of the many atrocities that are being committed against women. She says many cases are not reported to authorities due to social acceptance of GBV, the stigma most abused women face, fear of more violence from partners, failure by police to act on perpetrators, absence of a relevant law to punish GBV among other reasons.
Musuya says the government should expedite the passing of the Domestic Relations Bill and the Sexual Offenses Bill that will give more protection to both men and women in the home setting. The laws have been under consideration for the past more than 40 years.
The women activists are concerned that the government is not doing enough to protect women from acts of GBV and to help victims recover from gender based violence.
According to the World Health organization, that gender based violence is a serious human rights and public health concern. The WHO says while men and boys may also be affected, research indicates that sexual and gender-based violence predominantly affects women and girls.
Government should pay more attention to GBV
Apart from domestic violence, other GBV cases are on the increase. The Police Crime Report for 2008 shows that 1,536 cases of rape were reported to police in 2008, compared to 599 cases in 2007, indicating a more than 100% increase. Of the 1,536 cases, 239 suspects were arrested and charged, of which 3 were convicted, 3 persons acquitted, 11 discharged while 222 were awaiting trial by end of 2008.
Defilement was the leading Sex Related Crime reported in the country with a total of 8,635 cases registered in 2008, compared to 12,230 cases in 2007. According to the report, a total of 4,124 suspects were arrested and taken to Court, of whom 333 were convicted while 3,791 cases were pending in Courts of Law. The difference between cases reported and those arrested points to a big gap in implementing anti GBV laws when they are finally put in place. Uganda currently has strong laws to punish rape and defilement, with a death sentence the top penalty. But no one has ever been handed the death penalty for all the rape and aggravated defilement (girls below 16years) cases.
But there is a general trend of increasing violence in the country that is not just related to gender. The Police Crime Report for 2008 shows that the number of homicides reported and investigated was 2,753 compared to 1,927 cases in the year 2007.
Intimate partner violence affecting families, communities
But more focus is being drawn to the subtle domestic violence, with crimes of passion where intimate partners harm or kill each other becoming common. Ketty Nandi, the Officer in Charge Child and Family Protection Unit at Central Police Station says that domestic violence greatly affects the care and wellbeing of children in a home.
“Normally the children suffer when there is violence in the home. Some children are even abandoned and this creates a big problem in the communities,” Nandi says.
She says apart from police units and officers being few to stop the gender based violence cases which take place in many homes, the police also lacks enough funding for investigations, capacity to carry out forensic examinations as well as slow legal process.
This is especially true in northern Uganda, where more than 20 years of war in have greatly disrupted the health, law enforcement and justice system in the areas, leaving many victims of GBV to just suffer. Several reports on the conflict in northern Uganda have noted sexual and GBV as one of the most pervasive violations of the rights of women and girls. Among others, women and girls have faced rape, forced impregnation, forced abortion, trafficking, and sexual slavery.
Slow government response to GBV
The Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development has been working on a national strategy on Gender Based Violence which the Minister Gabriel Opio says is meant to put in place community based measures against gender based violence.
The government has ratified several international treaties related to gender-based violence, and the Ministry of Health in its health care guidelines has recognised the need for special care for survivors of gender based violence.
But according to a study by Reproductive Health Matters, Health Services for Survivors of Gender-Based Violence in Northern Uganda these commitments by the government are yet to be translated into adequate services in Uganda.
Because of the many cases of GBV in northern Uganda, different civil society organizations have supported the formation of Coordination Committees. The committees are chaired by the respective local governments. But most local leaders and especially Resident District Commissioners have been noted as decampaigning the efforts, with many saying investing in fighting GBV is not necessary.
GBV widespread, but not issue of concern
“They say we are wasting money and that it should go to building roads, and schools destroyed during the war instead. What they are telling us is that GBV is not important, while women and girls have been severely affected by the war,” says Betty Akulu of the Women and Rural Development Network (WORUDNET) which is based in Pader.
Yet Health personnel and experts interviewed in the another research by the International
Rescue Committee (IRC) considered sexual abuse of girls below 18 years of age, regardless of whether sex was consensual and irrespective of the male’s age, to be a significant problem. Schoolgirls were reported to be frequently targets of sexual harassment. Intimate partner violence was also common, and considered to be a private issue, as embedded in the culture of not discussing what goes on in ‘the bedroom’.
Why the increase in Gender Based Violence cases?
But what is behind the surging, real or apparent, of GBV cases today? The culture of women being subordinate to men, and women having to accept “some violence”, especially beating from men, has been with us a long as the oldest Ugandan can remember. Yet cases of GBV were not as pervasive in the past as they are today.
A 2003 study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on Domestic Violence Levels in Uganda found that approximately one in three women living in rural Uganda reported being physically threatened or assaulted by her current partner. The findings suggested strong links between the risk of domestic violence and alcohol consumption and women’s perceived risk of HIV of their male partner.
HIV, alcohol driving Gender Based Violence
According to the study report, women whose partners frequently consumed alcohol had approximately four times higher risk of recent domestic violence than women whose partners did not drink. In addition, women who perceived their partner to be at high risk of HIV had almost four times greater risk of recent domestic violence, compared to women who perceived their partner to be at very low risk.
“Fear of HIV infection may lead women to avoid sex with their partner, which in turn may precipitate violence or physical abuse,” the research notes.
This study found startling perception justifying violence on women. A higher percentage of women than men believed beating to be justifiable. The report indicates that 16% of men and 28% of women believed beatings to be justified when a woman refused to have sex with her partner. Also, 27% of women said beating is justifiable when a woman adopts contraception without permission of her partner while only 22 of men agreed with this view. 60% of men and a striking 87% of women believed that beating was justified if the woman was unfaithful.
The Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga says many factors like long distance to water sources and firewood lead to gender based violence. When women take long while collecting water or firewood, the men sometimes suspect their wives to be unfaithful and end up beating or threatening the wives, which can spiral other forms of violence.
Situation in IDP camps precipitates GBV
The IRC study in northern Uganda, Understanding the causes of gender-based violence done by Roselidah Ondeko and Susan Purdin found that domestic violence is one of the negative consequences of enforced idleness and the ensuing frustration in IDP camps.
The Reproductive Health Matters study says that the harsh living conditions in the camps and alcohol abuse are the major precipitators of gender based violence. Many respondents mentioned that early or forced marriage was a common practice for economic survival and security of parents and sometimes the young girls. It was noted that early marriages in Uganda have become acceptable as a solution to cope with shame and stigma faced by any girl that has been sexually abused. But the study notes that early marriage increased the risk of intimate partner violence. In all instances of violence, girls with mental and other disabilities were deemed to be the most vulnerable group.
Poverty, unemployment key driver of Gender Based Violence
Some people believe that poverty and unemployment or loss of jobs are major cause of GBV, especially in homes. Lack or loss of a job means a man has no income to properly look after the family. Many women have been beaten, killed or maimed for demanding household provision from husbands who are unable to provide for their families.
Poverty and or unemployment also makes many men to lose focus and mostly end up in alcoholism, which is the number one driver of GBV. Poverty also leads to a general sense of helplessness and lack of meaning in life which makes it easy for people to commit GBV crimes. Poverty has also been noted to make women and girls depend on men (and to accept violence) while it also exposes many girls to sexual exploitation.
The IRC study found that girls who drop out of school or are in hardships, skip school on to sell alcohol in bars and discos, thus exposing themselves to risks of sexual abuse.
“When girls are forced by poverty to work as maids in local houses, male householders may sexually abuse them …When a woman loses her husband, one of his male relatives may demand sexual favours or steal her property,” the research reads in part.
GBV is also strongly linked to bride price, with many a man feeling he has a right to do to his wife as he pleases because the man paid (bride price) for the wife. Recently, a man (hunter) in Palisa forced his wife to breast feed puppies for some years, citing that after all he had paid two cows for her bride price. This case rekindled the calls for the abolition or reformation of bride price since it is a major source of women’s vulnerability. Other cultural practices like Female Genital mutilation practiced mainly among the Sabiny is Kapchorwa and Bukwo districts are still ongoing to the detriment of women.
The Parliament of Uganda recently passed a private members bill moved by Kinkizi West MP, Dr. Chris Baryomunsi to outlaw Female Genital Mutilation. But whether and how this law will be implemented remains to be seen. Many people have pointed to the lack of laws against such violence as not the big problem, instead fronting awareness of human rights, empowering of women and girls, as well as eradicating poverty.
UNFPA Priorities for Action
All gender based violence survivors are entitled to appropriate care, including:
- Emergency contraception (EC) to prevent pregnancy Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to minimize HIV transmission
- Treatment for STIs
- Care of wounds and injuries
- Counseling and other psychosocial support
- Collection of forensic evidence, with consent of survivor
- Referral to legal and social support services within the community
Communities can work together to prevent and address gbv through:
- Involvement of women in settlement planning and resource distribution
- Identifying individuals or groups that may be at higher risk of GBV, such as single female-headed households and unaccompanied minors
- Education of community members, especially those in influential positions, to reduce the social acceptance of GBV
- Ensuring appropriate and accessible legal and social support services as well as informing the displaced community of the location and availability of these services
- Developing a confidential reporting system
Source: Fact sheet: Gender Based Violence, UNFPA
More articles and information resources on Gender Based Violence
A cluster of organisations led by UNFPA working against gender based violence in Uganda and the Great lakes Region.
Talking about the causes and effects of violence against women, and how it could be prevented –focusing on gender based violence in eastern Uganda
A qualitative study report on health services for survivors of gender based violence in northern Uganda
Article by John Bwire on the need for more massive sensitization of communities on gender based violence.
A Ugandan civil society organization which carries out programs to eliminate domestic violence
More information on Uganda
A profile of Uganda by the BBC
Information on different areas and sectors of Uganda, including crowd sourced information
News and updates about the President and Vice President of Uganda, statehouse and contacts of other government bodies.