Women who are victims of physical abuse face an extremely rough road in Uganda.
The former minister of Uganda in charge of Ethics and Integrity, Miria Matembe says about 90% of the women in Uganda are still ignorant about their rights. Matembe says this is due to Ugandan culture that gives no respect to women.
The former minister says according to the latest research by the Foundation for Human Rights Initiatives in Partnership with Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation, out of every 10 women in Uganda, eight women are battered by their husbands but don't report cases of assaults to police. Matembe says cases of violence against women are generally reported only when the victims are fatally injured.
Last month, Dr. Specioza Kazibwe, the vice-president of Uganda, announced that she was divorcing her violent husband because he has physically abused her throughout their marriage. Her announcement was groundbreaking in a country where domestic violence and abuse is seldom mentioned aloud. Dr. Kazibwe said, "My hope is that others will find the courage to say no to the violence that is in so many of our homes but is rarely spoken about."
Uganda's Battered Women in Long Wait for Justice
Sexually and physically abused women in Uganda are faced with difficulties in trying to see the perpetrators brought to justice. As a result, most abusers go unpunished. Often times, the women are let down by the notoriously slow justice system. Many live in bitterness and anguish.
Christine Lanyero was 23-years-old when she got married. For 16 years now, she has silently been battered and abused by her husband. A resident of Acholi Bur village in Aruu County, Pader District, the 39-year-old mother of four speaks in a low resigned tone as she narrates her ordeal and that of many women in her village.
"Wife battering is a routine here. Even without a reason, a man will just beat you especially when he is drunk. My husband is always beating me. Each time he asks for money and I don't give him he just starts beating me," she said.
The battering that Ms Lanyero has been subjected to over the years is not her only pain. She is also HIV positive. "My husband would go and sleep with other women and return to force me to have sex with him. If I refused, he would beat me. He did not use any protection," she said.
The beating, Ms Lanyero said, was particularly intense during the war because most men at the time were rendered idle, many became pre-occupied with drinking locally-brewed alcohol all-day long.
The trauma and frustration brought by the disorienting experience of living in the inhospitable conditions of an internally displaced persons' camp has also been blamed for turning many men in the war-ravaged north into unusually brutal individuals. But violence against women is not restricted in war settings, it is a national challenge.
The Uganda Demographic and Household Survey of 2006 shows that at least 60 per cent of women in the country say they have experienced physical violence in their lifetime. According to the report, the majority of gender-based violence against women is committed by an intimate partner.
It also shows that women are four times more likely than men to be targeted for both physical and sexual violence. Like many women in Uganda who face the same predicament, Ms Lanyero is hesitant to seek redress from the justice system. Once she tried to report a case of physical assault by her husband to the police, but she was told it was a "mere" domestic matter that can be resolved at home.
Ms Lanyero's frustrations and the gruelling reality of domestic violence that girls and women continue to face in this country have been supported by a new report by Amnesty International.
The report released recently has accused authorities in Uganda of not supporting women who seek justice for domestic violence. As a result, perpetrators escape prosecution and punishment for their crimes. Common domestic violence crimes against women and girls include rape, defilement and physical assault, forced and early marriages.
Titled "I Can't Afford Justice - Violence against women in Uganda continues unchecked and unpunished", the report reveals that the criminal justice system is grossly inadequate, particularly in ensuring the protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence.
This, the report notes, has led to continued beatings in homes that have routinely forced women to suffer silently in violent marriages, reducing their chances of accessing justice. "The failure of the government to protect and support victims of sexual violence undermines the quest for justice. Lack of government resources and political will mean that perpetrators rarely face justice," said Widney Brown, a senior director at Amnesty International. According to the report, 65 per cent of girls and women interviewed admitted that they had never contacted the police or anyone else after a sexual assault due to the limited availability of formal services and fear of stigma.
The report reveals that often times, because police stations are under-resourced, victims of domestic violence are asked by the police to give money to arrest and transport suspects, along with money to photocopy supporting documents and airtime.
Poverty inhibits women and girls from reporting domestic violence crimes. In most parts of the country, reporting to a police station involves a long and costly journey, yet most victims of domestic violence are often economically dependent on their abuser. Many choose to suffer silently.
This was the ordeal of one of the victims, Margaret, who gave an interview to Amnesty International. "My husband and I got married in 2008. At first everything was fine, then one day we had a fight and he beat me on the head. Because the injuries were quite serious, I went to hospital and they advised me to go and see the Local Council chairman to report it. I went to the Local Council office but nothing was done even after I told them what happened to me. I then decided to go to the police station and they asked me for Shs20,000 for fuel to go and arrest my husband, which I did not have. My husband beat me again but I gave up going to the police because they always ask for money which I don't have."
The report says the police are also not fully trained in how to handle cases of gender-based violence. Such demands, the report notes, had drastically reduced public faith in the police and the criminal justice system in general. "Many women in Uganda are afraid to report rape and other forms of violence, not only because of hostility from the community, but also because they fear being treated dismissively by the police and that no action will be taken to help them," the report reveals. The report notes that instead of women being helped; they are instead blamed for having contributed to the crime for which they are accusing their abusers.
In other instances, victims of gender-based violence are often turned away from police stations because of lack of shelters to keep them while their cases are being pursued. The report says the few legal aid institutions are also overwhelmed by cases. "Therefore many women endure violent situations because they have nowhere else to go," it says.
The police annual crime and traffic road safety report 2009 shows that countrywide, 165 incidents of domestic violence deaths were reported to police. This is an increase from 137 cases reported in 2008. The report, however, does not specify if the violence was perpetrated against women. The report also reveals that there were 619 rape cases registered in 2009 down from 1,536 cases reported in 2008.
Police chief Kale Kayihura, while releasing the report said although sex-related crimes recorded the biggest decrease of nearly 40 per cent from the previous year, more is needed to be done to curb the crime.
Gen. Kayihura said at the moment police can only react after the facts of such offences are established, it will not stop the force from offering protection to anyone who is under the threat of falling victim. "We shall continue to play our part in protecting those under threat of attack and vigorously investigate those that fall victim to such attacks," he said.
Gender rights activists agree that the police and justice system has been notoriously frustrating for victims of domestic crimes. Most victims interviewed during the study claimed that the police were reluctant to investigate domestic violence, saying it is a matter that can be addressed from home.
Activists want women who report domestic violence crimes to have easy access to social services. "In some instances when women report cases to the local councils, it is thrown back to them. At times the length of time that the cases take just keeps women away from pursuing justice," said Mr Anselm Wandega, the national coordinator for research, information and advocacy at the African Network for Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) that has done extensive advocacy on women and child rights issues.
Ms Rita Aciro, the coordinator of the Uganda Women's Network, the organisation that brings together all women's groups in Uganda said the environment has not been favourable for women to be able to report crimes of domestic violence, especially in rural areas. "Most of the institutions are not in place like medical facilities for defilement victims and the police are not trained to handle gender issues. We need the training of police to include a gender component," she suggested.
Ms Aciro explains that at times, cultural barriers inhibit women from reporting domestic crimes to the police. "Women are caught in a kind of double tragedy. They can't report their husbands because these are the very sources of their survival. Most of them end up suffering silently," said Ms Aciro. She said most of the abusers have been able to get away with their crimes because until recently, there were no specific laws in place under which perpetrators could be punished.
Women activists are now putting their hopes on the Domestic Violence Act which President Museveni assented to last month to offer more protection to victims of domestic violence and also punish the crime perpetrators. Other laws that activists hope will save women from being battered are the Marriage and Divorce Bill, the Sexual Offences Bill and the Trafficking in Persons Bill.
They say with the new law in place, perpetrators will no longer be able to count on the culture of impunity. In the absence of a law, countless men have been getting away of with assaulting and sexually abusing women.
The Domestic Violence Act criminalises marital rape and other forms of domestic violence and makes provision for appropriate penalties and civil remedies. It also penalises a partner in a domestic relationship who injures and endangers the health of the other. "With a law in place, we expect a lot to change. But having a law is one thing and implementing it is another. We need to be able to have the capacity to put this law in practice and sensitise the communities about their rights," Ms Aciro added.
According to a 2009 European Union Commissioned baseline survey by ANPPCAN Uganda Chapter on the situation of gender-based violence in Apac, Kitgum and Mukono districts, most respondents said women should report their husbands only in cases of serious assault that result in bodily harm.
The survey found that at least 50 per cent of respondents in Apac believed it was okay for a man to beat his wife compared to 40 per cent in Kitgum. In Mukono, only 10 per cent of the respondents said it was okay for a man to beat his wife.
"Some argued that a man who loves his wife should beat her when she does something wrong. It is a way to correct her behaviour," said Mr Wandega. In this survey, assault was the most common form of violence against women. "Most cases of assault and battering are negotiated within the community and may only be reported to the police when the parties do not reach a compromise," explained Mr Wandega.
Over time, however, Mr Wandega explained that increased sensitization has helped more women to come out and report cases of domestic violence to the police and local councils within their communities.
The Amnesty report suggests that effective criminal justice mechanisms are required to deal appropriately with perpetrators of violence. "They are also important for a survivor's recovery in showing that society as a whole condemns what has happened to her and will act to ensure that this will not happen in future," it reads.
"What discourages me from going to the police and Local Council is because they all want money. The higher you go up the chain of justice, the more money they want and yet I don't have the money. I don't even have money for medicines, where will I get the money for justice?"
Asha, domestic violence victim
"The last time I went to the police station to report that my husband had beaten me, they said "It's you again, what did he do this time? Don't waste our time reporting him, each time you do so, you change your mind and withdraw the complaint. We don't have resources to waste." I have not gone back to report him since then".
Lucy, domestic violence victim
"When I was raped in 2004, I did not go to the police or to the doctor. I knew the man who raped me and I did not think anyone would believe me. I began to feel weak and feverish after two months and went for an AIDS test. I found out I was HIV positive as a result of the rape. I was pregnant at the time of the rape and my baby died soon after she was born. The doctor said that she became HIV positive too."
Cristina, rape victim
"The local councillor is my husband's former classmate and they often drink together in the evenings. He does not take my case seriously when I report that my husband has beaten me or is neglecting to provide for the children".
"When I was raped in 2002, I did not report it because I thought it is a waste of time and money to go to the police and to court. I have heard that police often discourage people from reporting their cases, suspects are released without being charged, evidence goes missing and files get lost".
Rose, 28-year-old victim of rape