The Gun is now Silent; but the Pain of Gender Based Violence still Exists

Uganda is the populous landlocked country in East Africa. Uganda takes its name from the Buganda kingdom, which encompasses a large portion of the south of the country including the capital Kampala. The people of Uganda were hunter-gathers until 1,700 to 2,300 years ago, when Bantu – speaking populations migrated to the southern parts of the country.

Beginning in the late 1800s, the area was ruled as a colony by the British, who established administrative law across the territory. Uganda gained independence from Britain on 9th October, 1962. The period since then has been marked by intermittent conflicts, most recently a lengthy civil war against the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has caused tens of thousands of casualties and displaced more than a million people in northern Uganda.

The Northern region is one of four regions in the country of Uganda that has been affected by the 20 year war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, and the Government of Uganda, and witnessed the most egregious human rights violations. The Lord’s Resistance Army began in Northern Uganda in 1987 as a violent rebel group led by a self-proclaimed messiah, Joseph Kony and ended in 2006 with the Juba Peace Talks.  There was massive destruction of property and lives, forcing over 1,500,000 people, inclusive of women, children, the disabled and the elderly, to live in internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camps.

The LRA rebels established a pattern of “brutalization of civilians” by acts including murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, as well as mass burnings of houses and looting of camp settlements. Abducted civilians, including children were forcibly “recruited” as fighters, porters, and sex slaves to serve the LRA rebels and to contribute to attacks against the Ugandan army and civilian communities.

More than 200,000 girls and women were brutally raped, forced into sexual slavery in order to provide relatively safe, cheap, and convenient sexual services to the fighters. Those who remained in the IDP camps were subjected to domestic violence on a rampant scale.

Additionally, women in the IDP camps were compelled to take on new roles like heading households, with no social protection mechanisms in place. Following the end of the conflict, it remains to be seen whether transitional justice mechanisms will effectively address the gender-based violations that occurred during conflict because Accountability for gender crimes is a critical challenge for most post-conflict.

Uganda is party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and as a signatory to CEDAW, Uganda is required to eliminate gender discrimination and although the CEDAW does not contain an article dealing with domestic violence, two General Recommendations specifically address this issue. Uganda is also party to a number of international declarations like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Beijing Platform Chart which supports international treaties that protect the rights of women and brings into focus of new issues that affect the lives of women. Uganda recognizes the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against women.

Article 33 of the Uganda Constitution provides that “women shall be accorded full and equal dignity of the person with men” (Article 33(1). Article 33(2) further provides that “the state shall provide the facilities and opportunities necessary to enhance the welfare of the women to enable them to realize their full potential and advancement.” Article 33 (6) of the Constitution provides that “laws, cultures, customs or traditions which are against the dignity, welfare or interest of women or which undermine their status, are prohibited by this constitution.”

However despite this provision, there is continued existence of legislation, customary laws and practices on inheritance, land ownership, widow inheritance, polygamy, forced marriage, bride price and guardianship of children which conflict with the Constitution and CEDAW in this region in the transitional period.

This is due to the fact that, gender-based violence committed during the conflict continues to aggravate the discrimination against women and girls in northern Uganda today as the incidence of violence against women and girls remains particularly high and the forms of violence against women and girls include rape, women and girl child trafficking, child sexual abuse, and physical assault all perpetrated especially within households and communities as result of poverty, land grabbing among other things.

The majority of gender based violence against  women in Uganda is comitted by an intimate partner.  The Uganda Demographic and Heath Survey (2006 UDHS),  found that 39 percent, and more than one in three, women and girls aged 15 – 49 had experienced  physical and sexual violence  during their life time at the hands of their sexual husband or partner.

The effects of the conflict in Northern Uganda further continuous to affect people’s lives and livelihoods where people’s basic needs are still hard to meet. In Dokolo District one of the communities that was affected, where a Community based Organization – Foundation for Integrated Rural Development operates, its Project Coordinator Mr. Denis Odwe, noted during an interview with him, that the communities in this district are still hit by poverty, where most of the family members especially the men, have resorted to consumption of alcohol as a remedy to their frustrations and their inability to provide for the family; and hence this leading to high  violence in the homes and communities.  

As a result of the men’s inability to provide for the families, the women have increasingly become the primary source of income within their communities. Traditionally, women’s roles have been mainly the domestic level duties in nature, which included producing children, caring for the family, teaching children at home, besides the daily chores of cleaning, washing, and cooking. Although the traditional practices are based on patriarchal systems which makes a man to be the head of the household and hence the bread winner, today many women have increasingly assumed the role of being breadwinners and have become the de-facto heads of the families.

However, despite the fact that the women have taken up these roles, women are still marginalized and the men butter the women ‘pretending’ the women are in charge of his household, and even appeasing the women for moving out in the community markets to make a living for the family, but yet referring to them as ‘prostitutes’; and this is another way of belittling the women and affecting their livelihoods.

Despite the presence of the police, they are still inadequate in helping these women who are victims of violence, because the standard practices of the police is to demand money for them to engage in arresting the suspects; and this inhibits the ability of women to report cases of gender based violence with the police authorities. And above all, this issue is considered as a ‘private’ matter on cultural grounds; and the men [husbands] do not approve women going before the law for such issues. Also the traditional institutions and the ‘cultural family heads’ [known as ‘clan leaders’], who are supposed to protect the community from being treated wrongly, leave the women aside to struggle alone by themselves either in the hands of their husbands, or other men in the community.

Due to the fact that the ‘village clan’ is made up of men who supposedly pass judgment at the traditional justice hearing,  are also sometimes the perpetrators of violence; and they also don’t pass judgment to the perpetrators of violence, but rather leave them to move around freely without being served in prison.

Once women report cases of violence in the police, in order to seek for remedies, some of the corrupted police personnel in the police justice system in Uganda, demand money from these women victims.  Under the pretext of ‘speeding-up the investigation procedures’, they insist high sums which vary between 4,000 Ugandan Shillings (about $ 3) and 60,000 Ugandan Shillings (about $ 35).

Failure to pay the amount demanded by the police usually results in the police not pursuing the investigation, and in most cases they refuse to investigate cases of sexual and domestic violence as the police deem, they are ‘family matters’ which needs to be solved amicably without arresting the ‘head of the family’ under whom all the household members depend.

Further there are high cases of early and forced child marriages as a result of poverty, leading to violent initiation rites and practices, such as murder of wives or husbands, child labour, defilement, denial of property rights, use of abusive languages among others, etc.

The effectiveness of the traditional justice mechanisms  which used to provide protection for the community have also eroded away,  and after the war these systems have failed to protect the women against Gender Based Violence  which continues to make these women vulnerable.

Many women and girls in northern Uganda suffer sexual and gender-based violence committed within the households and communities, and these women who are victims of violence in northern Uganda often face insurmountable difficulties in trying to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice. Many are afraid to report rape and other forms of violence, not only because of intimidation, hostility and ridicule from the community, but also due to the State’s inaction in ensuring redress. As a result, the justice system in northern Uganda ignores, denies and tacitly condones violence against women and girls, and by this, knowingly or unknowingly protects suspected perpetrators.

Twenty year old [20] Mary (pseudonym) of Aloi sub county explains, “In the year 2012, I came back with other girls, to our community after having run off to another district neighboring South Sudan for safety; but even there we had no safety as the rebels attacked us and raped us every night and infected us with HIV/AIDS. We later came back home after the guns became silent, and we were received by our ‘cultural family heads’ who assured us that we would be safe since we had come back home, and helped us trace our parents’ land so we could settle and cultivate food. But men of other clans, denied support for us, saying that we have ‘married’ into another family and had no right to our own land, because we had been raped by men from different clans. They chased us away from our community, to the streets, of a nearby district. We reported on this to the traditional cultural justice system which literally protects the families in the communities and takes decisions on any issues raised within the families, but received no support.”

Same as Mary, a vast majority of cases, of violence against women go unreported in the police or local authorities in northern Uganda, partly because most victims have lost hope of getting any kind of justice. Victims narrate how stigmatization plays a big role in discouraging them from reporting sexual and gender-based violence to the police where Physical violence against women is the most prevalent. Women, especially the married ones are still subjected to violent acts which include kicking, beatings, and sometimes killings, and in these contexts it is their husbands who are the perpetrators, who deny and deprive the women of their rights to own land, deny women their sexual rights due to cultural statues; girls too are faced with the challenges of defilement and child negligence.

Therefore, it is visible that, in conflict transitioning communities, at the community grassroots level, gender based violence continues to be treated with indifference, and treated as an unfortunate outcome of the war rather than a crime; and the communities are accepting it as a normal consequence of conflict even when the guns are no more loud and violent, and the communities continue to treat women and girls as exiles in the communities.

Thus,  while it is clear that the solution to ending the “conflicts” in Northern Uganda and bringing peace in the communities that were raged by war lies in justice systems, these systems have still failed to address the needs and rights of women and girls; Hence, the Ugandan government together with the communities have the obligations to act further towards protecting their women and girls from gender based violence, and ensure that the survivors gain more access to justice, health services, legal services, safety and shelter requirements. Above all the government should take measures to continuously address the root causes of gender based violence, through community advocacy where men and women are involved in combating gender based violence to promote peaceful transitioning communities.

 Harriet Adong | Uganda