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RIGHTS-UGANDA: Women Press for Domestic Violence Bill

Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi

KAMPALA, Jul 17 2009 (IPS) - "Man forces wife to breastfeed puppies," screams one headline. "Police boss shoots wife," shouts another; and a third: "Man batters wife over meat". These are typical headlines in Uganda’s newspapers today. Women daily report surviving different forms of violence in their homes: physical, sexual, emotional or even economic abuse.

Uganda has no legislation targeting domestic violence; with a draft bill against domestic violence presently before parliament, women's rights activists are determined to see this corrected.

Sixty eight percent of women in Uganda have experienced some form of domestic violence according to the country's 2006 National Demographic and Health Survey. In Uganda, these women – and those worst affected are disproportionately poor, poorly-educated and disadvantaged – are unable to rely on the state to protect them from harm from intimate partners. There is neither a law nor a legal definition of domestic violence.

Perpetrators of domestic violence are usually charged with other offences like murder, assault, rape, defilement and child neglect among others… if they are charged at all. Sometimes police or court officials send the women back home saying "that’s a family affair, there’s no case".

There is predictably no data recording cases of domestic violence. However, studying police crime statistics from 2008, one finds 137 cases of murder as a result of domestic incidents. More than 1,500 were charged with rape and 2,226 cases of child neglect were opened.

"Other cases are charged under assault. So you would not know whether this assault was between a couple or not," says Christine Nandin, head of the Family and Child Protection Unit, at National Police Headquarters in Kampala.


Prevalence

Betty Aol Ocan, member of parliament representing the northern district of Gulu, describes the domestic violence problem as "very big".

"Most cases reported to the police in northern Uganda are mainly of domestic violence character. For instance, we find that defilement (sexual abuse of a minor) happens within homesteads or households. Moreover, those are the reported cases. But there are also many unreported cases."

Ocan blames the high incidence of domestic violence in northern Uganda on the 22-year-long civil conflict which forced up to two million people into camps for the internally displaced.

"Sometimes the men were greatly disempowered economically. And where the culture holds that you are supposed to be a provider or a bread winner for the family and you cannot do it, then you become aggressive. So men have turned out to be aggressive on women. We hope this DV Bill will help to strengthen this situation," says Ocan, who is also general secretary of the Uganda Women Parliamentarians Association (UWOPA).

But gender-based violence is not restricted to the north.

"If you sat at the Family and Child Protection Unit of any police station for the whole day, you would have a minimum of five cases that come in with different circumstances of domestic violence," says Nandin.

"Some cases can be registered, while others cannot because of their 'domestic' nature. So we just counsel them. We therefore do more talking because we do not have a reliable law," she says.

Causes

Culture, economic dependence and impunity are major causes of persisting domestic violence in African society, says Rita Aciro Lacor, national coordinator the Uganda Women’s Network, the umbrella organization for all women NGOs in the country.

"There are issues of culture which most people use to justify violence; that it is culturally acceptable for a woman to be beaten once in a while by her husband. But there are also issues of economic dependence because women are the poor of the poorest and therefore they depend on their spouses economically. So they cannot make their own choices and end up suffering a lot of violence."

But women's growing assertiveness has been paralleled by increasing violence in homes.

"A lot more women are getting empowered or are empowered, and unfortunately the men are not coping with the empowerment. And the end result of that is the violence because they think by beating a woman, then you are trying to bring her down and control her."

And because there is no law, a man can beat a woman and get away with it, Lacor says.

Challenges

In June, a Domestic Violence Bill that prohibits violence between persons in a domestic relationship was tabled in the Ugandan Parliament for the first reading. The Bill is intended to protect sufferers of Domestic Violence, punish perpetrators and set guidelines for courts on the protection and compensation of abused women.

The Bill defines a domestic relationship as "a family relationship, a relationship akin to a family relationship or one in a domestic setting that exists or existed between a victim and a perpetrator." These relationships include those between spouses, relatives and domestic workers.

Now that a law is in the offing, will this change the situation?

"If this law is put in place, it will strengthen the existing laws and it will address the rampant incidences of DV," says Ocan.

But Lacor is not so sure the Bill will even ever become law. "It’s too early for us to celebrate and unless we have seen this Bill passed into law and the President has assented to it, we will not celebrate," she says.

"But the greatest hindrances are within our Parliament. These are the people who pass laws. And I don’t want people to think that Parliamentarians are immune, detached or isolated from the society. They portray what our society is. So being in Parliament does not make them any different. What society thinks of a woman, a number of MPs think the same," Lacor says.

Nandin concurs: "The other challenge is the society’s attitude. They would rather use the clan meeting or that patriarchal system of solving family conflicts. If one goes to the police then you become a problem to the whole clan."

She says some women even withdraw cases against their spouses.

"Another cultural norm says that you don’t wash your dirty linen in public. So they (women) would rather keep domestic abuses to themselves. Some working class women also think reporting domestic violence would make them lose respect in their places of work."

But in spite of this, women activists are not sitting back. They would like to see a new law passed, and fast.

"Women's organisations have been spending sleepless nights lobbying the different stakeholders and different power centres; with Parliament, the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to get gender responsive laws passed. Having this Bill passed into law is going to be one step forward," Lacor says.

On International Women’s Day this year, UWOPA demonstrated this commitment by holding a vigil in the Parliamentary gardens. They lit a candle which they vowed would burn until the Domestic Violence Bill is passed to law.

 
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