Africa, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-UGANDA: ‘When a Man Hurts a Woman, There’s Nothing She Can Do’

Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi

KAMPALA, Jun 10 2009 (IPS) - Mary Atimango left the war-ravaged Gulu district to come and live in Kampala during the peak of the northern Ugandan conflict over fifteen years ago. The 59-year-old now lives in the small peri-urban village of ‘Acholi Quarters’ on Kireka Hill, on the outskirts of the Ugandan capital.

Atimango says police do not investigate gender-based violence. Credit:  Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi

Atimango says police do not investigate gender-based violence. Credit: Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi

She and the other women spend their days breaking stones under the hot sun in the quarry here for the equivalent of just $1.30 a day. Many of the women have children, some as young as six months old, tied to their backs. Their stories are similar: a mixed tale of poverty, strife and survival.

“I cannot go back to Acholiland. I don’t want to remember what happened there. I remember whenever the rebels attacked the village, all women ran and hid. But sometimes they found and raped and abducted some of them. One of my nieces was abducted and up to now, I don’t know where she is,” Atimango tells IPS.

Atimango and the others are among the estimated hundreds of people in Kireka who fled Acholiland and the 23-year-old conflict and have become ‘urban’ internally displaced people (IDPs).

“Sometimes the rebels attacked homes and raped women while the whole family watched. They called it a punishment for supporting the government soldiers.

Doubly Traumatised

Gender-based violence against women, especially in conflict and post-conflict situations, is increasingly an issue of concern. Across Africa, incidents of rape and other sexual violence have been documented in many armed conflicts including those in DR Congo, Sudan Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone Somalia and Uganda.

According to a 2008 Amnesty International Report ‘Doubly Traumatised: The lack of access to justice by women victims of sexual and gender-based violence in northern Uganda’, women and girls in northern Uganda who suffer sexual and gender-based violence often face difficulties in trying to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

The study, conducted in five districts in 2007, reveals the discrimination women face trying to pursue cases of rape, defilement, domestic violence, assault and other forms of violence. Amnesty International considers that the current justice system in northern Uganda is grossly inadequate, particularly in ensuring the protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence.

“But when you are raped, you don’t even know what to do. It brings quarrels in the home. Your husband can even leave you. Sometimes you conceive and everybody says your child is a curse…There are many women I know who have been through this,” she says.

The graying woman speaks in a low resigned tone as she narrates the ordeals that women in her village went through during the conflict. She also recalls the increasing number of cases of wife battering in the community as the war raged on.

“The war affected our men. They drank a lot and began to beat their wives. But when a man hurts a woman, there is nothing she can do. My own husband used to come home drunk and batter me. Sometimes I had to run away and sleep at my neighbour’s house.

“Sometimes he would force me to have sex with him. But in our culture, you cannot deny your husband sex. That is a big problem. We women do not have control over our bodies,” she says.

“As a woman, it’s really painful to see your fellow woman being forced into having sex. We women are also humans. Naturally, we all have moods. So if you come and force me to do so, it really negatively affects my life…It pains me to think that one day, my own daughter will also go through the same experiences.”

“Marital rape is a form of violence because you are actually treating a woman’s body as your property. In Africa, sexuality is being controlled by men, where culture and religion dictate that a woman’s body is not hers, and that perpetuates those power relations between men and women even in marriage,” says Akina Mama wa Africa (AMwA) Africa Regional Coordinator Christine Butegwa.

Like other women at the quarry who share similar stories, Atimango is resigned about seeking redress on any form of gender-based violence. She does not believe in the justice system because, she says, “the police will just call that a domestic problem.”

“Traditionally, when husbands force you into having sex, you have to take the case to your maternal aunt or your brother to try and resolve it. We do not go to the police because during our days, the police looked at these as domestic matters. We are also afraid of the police. Sometimes the police tell us that they do not solve domestic problems,” she says.

“Women in northern Uganda are suffering just like women elsewhere in the country,” says Eva Kawuma, a Kampala-based human rights lawyer.

“But with the women in the north, it is more complicated because they have had violence from all fronts: intimate partners, family members, and because of the insurgency, violence from the rebels and the government army. Probably they are unique in that way because they are more vulnerable due to the (conflict) situation they are in,” she tells IPS.

Beginning to seek redress

The National Association of Women Judges of Uganda (NAWJ) aims to address these issues. The “Jurisprudence of Equality in a Time of HIV/AIDS” programme aims at providing advanced training for Uganda’s judges and magistrates on the link between violence against women, property rights and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It also aims to improve women’s access to justice in post-conflict situations.

NAWJ is a non-governmental organisation composed of 40 jurists who are focused on enforcing women’s rights and increasing women’s access to the legal system.

“The connections between violence against women and HIV/AIDS in northern Uganda highlight the importance of this training,” the executive secretary of NAWJU, Henrietta Wolayo, told IPS.

“In order for women in the region to be empowered and to reconstruct their lives, they must first be able to assert their rights, have them enforced and respected.

“In the next phase of the project, NAWJ will be looking into addressing investigations within the police and also look at sensitising the public on their rights to justice,” Wolayo says.

Uganda is party to several international human rights treaties which prohibit violence against women. The country’s 1995 constitution also calls for the protection of women’s rights. Rape and other sexual and gender-based crimes are also provided for under the country’s penal code.

However, the penal code does not recognise marital rape – widespread in Uganda – as a criminal offence, mainly due to the presumptions in customary law that consent to sexual intercourse is given by the act of marriage. Uganda also lacks a comprehensive law which deals with domestic violence.

A draft Domestic Violence Bill which seeks to criminalise marital rape and other forms of domestic violence is currently under consideration in parliament.

“We need to begin with amendments in the criminal law so that there are specific provisions for women who have faced violence and then there would be specific penalties which take into account that usually the people who are abusing them are intimate partners,” Kawuma says.

“I think empowerment of women is also very important. These women are vulnerable because of the insurgency, most of them have not gone to school, there are no social structures in place and they have nothing to do apart from being wives. They need to be given exit options, to find them skills so that if they make a decision to exit such a relationship, they can do so,” she says.

Butegwa adds: “Governments have a commitment to make sure that people live in a secure and healthy environment free from torture because that is what sexual violence is. It’s cruel and inhuman torture.”

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