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Uganda: Violence against women unabated despite laws and policies

August - November 2019

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Uganda: Violence against women unabated despite laws and policies

Batsinda market woman

She had always dreamed of becoming a powerful politician, and her excitement on finally joining Parliament was overwhelming. On her first day at the august House, she was full of hope. Hope of changing her constituency for the better.

One year later, the youthful MP feels frustrated. “I love my job, but sometimes I wonder if I am in the right place,” she said.

The bubbly MP has been the target of sexual harassment by senior male colleagues. “I once had my breasts squeezed by a male colleague old enough to be my father. Another one hounded me during an MPs’ trip abroad. He kept knocking at my door in the night. I had to lock myself in.”

She says harassment is commonplace in Parliament but often goes unreported “because we fear the consequences.”

Elsewhere, in Mukono, 21 km east of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, Grace Ozitya has battled with her in-laws for years to regain her deceased husband’s property.

“When he died, they forced me out of our home and destroyed our garden,” said Ms. Ozitya.

Police did not help her because Ms. Ozitya could not raise $3 to facilitate the investigation. At the administrator-general’s office, a file was opened, but it later disappeared. She gave up until staff from International Justice Mission, a US-based international NGO focusing on human rights, law and law enforcement, intervened.

Violence against women is on the increase in Uganda despite the presence of laws and policies to protect victims and survivors.

According to the Uganda Police Force’s annual crime report, gender-based violence cases that were reported and investigated increased by 4% (from 38,651 to 40,258 cases) between 2015 and 2016.

The 2016 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey revealed that up to 22% of women aged 15 to 49 in the country had experienced some form of sexual violence. The report also revealed that annually, 13% of women aged 15 to 49 report experiencing sexual violence. This translates to more than 1 million women exposed to sexual violence every year in Uganda.

Violence against women has recently taken new, more sophisticated forms. An increasing number of women are, for instance, reporting cyber-bullying and abuse through social media and smartphones.

“I recently received a WhatsApp call from a strange number. When I picked up the call, the guy on the other side started groping his genitals. I blocked him,” said Monica Amoding, a politician.

In other cases, jilted lovers expose nude pictures of their ex-girlfriends on social media platforms in what is locally called “revenge porn”.

In 2014 Desire Luzinda, a celebrated Ugandan musician, made a public apology after her ex- boyfriend leaked her nude pictures on social media.

“I want to apologise to my mother, daughter, family, friends, fans and any other people who have been offended by these images.… This was a breach of trust by someone I loved.… This person has not only abused that trust but now seeks to drag me down,” said Ms. Luzinda, who was charged under the 2014 Anti-Pornographic Act.

Since Ms. Luzinda’s incident, over 10 women have had their nude pictures leaked on social media by jilted lovers, resulting in public shaming and ridicule.

“In all the revenge porn cases, women have been singled out for criticism while the offending men are never followed up,” says Eunice Musiime, the executive director of Akina Mama wa Africa, a pan-African women’s organization.

This form of abuse thrives on an absence of proper legislation and a lack of investigative expertise among Ugandan law enforcement officers.

“Unless we put in place effective laws and equip law enforcement organs with modern technology and skills to handle these cases, the situation will only worsen,” says Anna Mutavati, the deputy country representative for UN Women Uganda.

Corrective rape is also rife as a form of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAW/G). “We have received many complaints from lesbian women who claim to have been forced into heterosexual sex by their families as a way to correct their sexual orientation,” Ms. Musiime says. Because of the negative attitudes about lesbianism in Ugandan society, victims find it difficult to report.

“‘Concerned’ relatives hand you over to a man to have sex with you to stop you from being a lesbian,” one young woman said. This lady (who requested anonymity) was abused for several years through corrective rape and by her own partner. Today she is working to rehabilitate fellow women who have gone through the same experience.

The government remains largely unprepared to handle some new forms of VAW, especially cyber abuse.

“We are aware of the cyber forms of VAW like revenge porn, but that is an area for the Uganda Communications Commission to handle. We are also waiting to hear from the Pornographic Control Committee to advise on the way forward,” Maggie Kyomukama, the assistant commissioner for gender and women affairs in the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (MGLSD) said.

Challenges abound

Ineffective laws pose a big challenge to the fight against VAW. Laws such as the Penal Code (Amendment) Act 2007, the Domestic Violence Act 2010, the Sexual Offences Bill and the Marriage Bill do not address key aspects of VAW. None of these laws criminalise marital rape, for instance.

The Domestic Violence Act does not cover cohabiting partners, while the 2004 amendment to the Land Act of 1998 requires spousal consent to sex, but does not recognise coownership of land between spouses.

The Land Act also fails to require customary land tenure systems to permit women to act as coowners/managers of customary land, and creates weak protections for widows who seek to inherit their husband’s land, says Ms. Musiime. She also points out that the Employment Act, 2006 restricts punitive action in sexual harassment cases at work to an employer or his representative, saying nothing of physical, sexual and verbal abuse by coworkers.

Poor funding for VAW programmes also remains a huge challenge.

“A look at the budgets for the sectors mandated to address VAW/G is worrying. While activities are listed in the budgets, there are no monetary allocations. Most of the work on VAW/G is donor funded and concentrated in project areas,” says Diana Kagere Mugerwa, the media and national advocacy officer at the Center for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP), a local civil society organization.

In 2016 and 2017 the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development budgeted to spend UGX 1.68 billion ($450,000) on VAW programmes, a great deal of which has been coming from donors such as Irish Aid and the United Nations Population Fund. This, according to Ms. Mutavati, is not sustainable.

“Dependency on external financing does not create sustainable ground sectors to mainstream this work. What happens if the donors pull out?” she asks.

Limited capacity on the part of the gender ministry also cripples VAW activities.

According to MGLSD’s Ministerial Policy Statement for Financial Year 2016/2017, during that period the Directorate of Gender and Women Affairs had only 10 staff members, a fraction of the workforce required. The Child and Family Protection Unit of the Uganda Police Force has only 645 police officers to cover 112 districts. This makes it hard for the police to respond to the numerous reported cases.

Police also lack the requisite skills and financial support to investigate VAW cases. Justice is frustrated by an inadequate number of critical facilities, like shelters where VAW victims can be accommodated and receive counseling and other support before returning home, as well as an absence of specialised courts where it is safe for women to report their cases.

“While there are specialized courts on corruption, environment, terrorism and other cases, there are no such courts for VAW cases. That is telling,” says Mutavati.

The country has 13 shelters where VAW victims can be accommodated. Four of these are donor funded.

Successes

Last year the government launched a National Gender Based Violence (GBV) policy, specifying the roles each sector is supposed to play to ensure the prevention of and response to VAW. Assistant Commissioner Kyomukama also says the government’s National Development Plan 1 and 2 have included comprehensive frameworks to address VAW.

In a bid to address poverty, which usually plays a factor in VAW, the government though MGLSD last year launched the Ugandan Women Entrepreneurship Programme (UWEP) to improve women’s access to financial services and equip them with entrepreneurial skills.

According to Brenda Kifuko Malinga, UWEP’s national programme coordinator, so far 3,416 projects have been launched and 43,602 women assisted throughout the country.

Ms. Mutavati says that the UN and its partners have made some improvement in sexual violence in the most heavily affected eastern regions of Busoga and Karamoja through the Joint Programme on GBV funded by the Norwegian embassy and through the government programme on GBV supported by Irish Aid, the Irish government programme for overseas development.

Despite some success, a lot more work remains to be done to ensure a violence-free country for Ugandan women.


VAW in Uganda, the figures

Uganda’s 2016 police crime report indicates that defilement cases alone rose by 34 percent, from 13,118 in 2015 to 17,567 in 2016. Defilement is the act of having sex with girls under 18. Rape cases reported, according to the report, also increased, from 1,419 to 1,572.

A report released last month by researchers from Makerere University College of Health Sciences indicated that one out of five female people with hearing impairments has been a victim of rape in the last 12 months.

A 2015 report by the International Justice Mission indicates that 40% of widows experience actual or attempted property grabbing in their lifetime. More than 30% of widows are victims of property grabbing. In many cases the widows spoke of perpetrators (usually relatives of their deceased husbands) threatening and physically assaulting them and sometimes making attempts on their lives and those of their children.

Police crime reports from 2011 through 2017 also indicate that deaths resulting from domestic violence went down by a significant 54%—from 358 to 163—in this time.

According to statistics from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution (ODPP), out of 1,594 new rape and 7,618 defilement cases reported in 2015 and 2016, only 57% brought punishment to the perpetrator. Such a low number gives others a sense of impunity, and in so doing exacerbates VAW.

Between 2012 and 2017, about 5 percent of all sexual violence cases handled in a year by the ODPP have been closed due to lack of evidence, according to a CEDOVIP study.

The police and Ministry of Health—the two leading public institutions in GBV response—spend an estimated UGX 37.7 billion (about $10.4 million) annually dealing with GB.

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