Rural Outposts Bring Resources, Hope to Women in Abusive Marriages

With domestic violence on the rise, commission opens 12 offices across Uganda aimed at rooting out human rights violations.

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Rural Outposts Bring Resources, Hope to Women in Abusive Marriages

Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Anna Kyarisiima points to a photo of her late husband at her home in Mparo, Rwamucucu subcounty in Rukiga district.

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RUKIGA, UGANDA — On the wall of Anna Kyarisiima’s living room hangs the portrait of a man, clad in a tie. It could easily pass for the picture of a humble man, but to her, it is the reminder of a tragic past.

“Photos are deceitful; they never show the inside of a person,” she says, scoffing. The man in the picture is her dead husband, who she says tormented her for three decades. “I doubt he is in heaven. I highly doubt.”

On the day she first met him in the market more than four decades ago, he bought her a sweater and two dresses. She liked him for many reasons, one being that he had a tidy room with a straightened bed, which Kyarisiima says portrayed him as a responsible man. In 1985, she married him through customary law. Little did she know that the union she was entering would leave her permanently scarred.

The numerous beatings Kyarisiima received from her husband left her deaf. She knows that she could have divorced him on the grounds of domestic violence. But even after she was sure her husband would eventually kill her, even after he put a rope around her neck and pulled her, even after he flung their 4-month-old child through a window to her death, Kyarisiima did not divorce him.

Her situation mirrors that of many women in Uganda, where cases of domestic violence have increased since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a 2021 report by the World Bank. Despite a law that provides for divorce, women who experience domestic violence rarely leave abusive and life-threatening marriages.

There are reasons for this, such as the obsolete nature of the law, lack of knowledge about the law, stigma, lack of economic freedom and harmful traditional practices, to mention a few. Poor, uneducated and rural women are disproportionally affected. But new human rights offices that have opened in parts of rural Uganda might help alleviate this situation.

A study based on 2018-2019 data, conducted and published by the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law, a nonprofit that advocates for justice, estimates that 370,000 Ugandans divorce or separate every year. However, the law governing divorce in Uganda, which is contained in the Marriage Act enacted 118 years ago, is obsolete and places an unfair burden of proof on women, according to a paper published by the Centre for Policy Analysis, a policy research think tank based in Kampala, the capital.

According to the paper, to obtain a divorce, a woman must prove both that her husband committed adultery and either deserted her, was cruel to her or failed to maintain her. In contrast, a man needs to prove only adultery.

This is despite changes by the Constitutional Court on equality grounds, which were never enacted, requiring those filing for divorce to show only that the marriage cannot be salvaged. Some, particularly religious leaders, have objected to these changes, saying they diminish the institution of marriage.

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Like many women in Uganda, Anna Kyarisiima did not seek a divorce despite years of abuse at her husband’s hands.

The law is only part of the problem. Lack of economic freedom makes it difficult for women in abusive marriages to file for divorce or separation, says Phina Akankwasa, a smallholder farmer who has been married for 17 years. Akankwasa says that when her husband beat her, she first left for her parents’ house. But she couldn’t stay there permanently.

“My parents are both dead, and my brothers took over the land, so where will I be, how will I survive?” She had to return to her husband. “There is no way I can leave the home,” she adds.

It was the same situation for Kyarisiima. “Who would have taken care of my other children?” she asks.

Social norms and stigma also leave women at a disadvantage. Susan Nabatte, a lawyer at the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA), says that some women come to the organization to report their husbands for issues like failure to support their children, but after digging deeper, the organization realizes the underlying issue is domestic violence.

“They don’t want their men punished or put in prison because they have this question: How will society see me?” she says.

Some women stay in marriages because they lack legal information, according to the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law report. Few Ugandans are aware of the existing legal framework, particularly poor, uneducated and rural women. Only 1% of those interviewed for a survey conducted by the institute said they seek the help of lawyers, who they deem unaffordable. While customary law at the community level is an option in rural Uganda, most of the councils are led by men who remain biased against women, according to the report.

Nabatte notes another problem. The institutions women report to don’t usually tell them there is a way out. She adds that women in rural Uganda see the village council as the highest institution that could solve their cases. The moment their case fails at this level, they give up.

Derrick Byamugisha, chief magistrate in the town of Kabale, also blames stigma and culture. “Women usually come to [the] police to request for a release of their husbands from custody after a few days, and then the case closes,” he says.

In such cases, the government can do little, says Jameson Karemani, public relations officer of the Uganda Judiciary. He adds that police are mandated to inform people about the right to report abusive marriages.

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Anna Kyarisiima’s friend, Tereza Tumwebaze, speaks to her at her home in Mparo. Tumwebaze uses gestures and speaks loudly to communicate with Kyarisiima, who is deaf as the result of her husband’s repeated beatings.

Although they already do this, Elly Matte, police spokesperson in the Kigezi region, says sometimes it’s up to those affected. “We have done enough sensitization both on radio and physically visiting villages, but people don’t want to adhere,” Matte says.

Things might change, however. Teopista Twembi, Kigezi regional human rights officer for the Uganda Human Rights Commission, says the commission has been opening offices in rural areas across the country. Among these offices is the Kigezi regional office, which opened in July 2022 and serves four districts in the region.

Twembi says the rural expansion resulted from a gap the commission noticed. Rural Ugandans didn’t know where to report human rights violations such as domestic violence, and if they knew, the offices were sometimes too far away. It helps, Twembi says, to be close to people. “We [know] when the men know there is an office close by, they will reduce the violence,” she says.

Twembi adds that they have been educating people on human rights. “We shall comb all the villages,” she says. Already, the regional office in Kigezi has been spreading copies of the constitution, which are printed in the Rufumbira, Rukiga, Kiswahili and English languages.

Although the commission has noticed a prevalence of domestic violence cases against women, Twembi says the plan is to root out all kinds of violence and human rights abuses in rural Uganda. Across the country, the commission has opened 12 offices. If it had more resources, Twembi says, the organization would open one in each district.

Officials have seen some progress since they opened the Kigezi regional office. “Wherever we go, the people are appreciating,” Twembi says. “The women say now that the offices are nearer, there will be considerable peace.”

While having these offices closer to rural communities might help some women, the scars Kyarisiima’s husband — who died of natural causes — left are etched on her body. His framed picture still hangs on the wall of the house that he still owns, even after death. She could get rid of it, but she says he is still her husband and the father of her children.

There is some consolation in being alive, she says. “This God who never talks to us has many secrets, the fact that this man died and left me alive is one.”

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

The chief magistrate’s court in Makanga, Kabale town, where cases of domestic violence are handled.

Correction: An earlier version of a caption in this article misidentified the photographed building. Global Press Journal regrets this error.

Edna Namara is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.