Ugandans Urge Change in Attitudes Toward Domestic Violence


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KAMPALA, UGANDA – Christine Nalumasi, 25, is in her ninth month of pregnancy. She says she does not know where the father of her baby is and has not been to any hospitals for antenatal care.

She says she is waiting for her water to break, and then her relatives will take her to the nearest clinic. She may go to Mulago Hospital but says she is worried about the quality of medical attention there.

Her husband abandoned her when she was four months pregnant, she says. He stopped providing for her and their 2-year-old daughter. Nalumasi says he thought the rent for their house was too expensive and disappeared when she refused to move back in with her parents. She says she doesn’t know where he is, but heard he is living with another woman.

Teddy Nakawesi, 35, had an argument with her husband and he soon disappeared with another woman, too. She says he left her to care for their four children, ages 14, 8, 6 and 4. He accused her of not contributing to the family financially. She was evicted from her home after he left.

She is currently working for a local family as a maid. Her eldest daughter lives with her grandmother in the village, and she continues to care for her three other children. Her brother-in-law provides some financial assistance. She says she is happy that at least the primary schools are free so she can continue to educate her children.

Nalumasi and Nakawesi say they are victims of economic abuse, a little recognized but major form of abuse in Uganda. According to the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention, CEDOVIP, a local organization, domestic violence can be physical, emotional, sexual or economic between intimate partners. Writer Lilian Tindyebwa says domestic violence includes neglect, especially when it’s intended, as in Nalumasi’s and Nakawesi’s cases.

Domestic violence affects the majority of women in Uganda, but advocates say it receives little attention because of a culture of acceptance that leads to underreporting and inadequate law enforcement. Acceptance stems from rigid gender roles that put men in charge and view women as property. Today, local organizations and religious leaders are promoting counseling to teach victims to speak up.

Amnesty International, a human rights organization, released a report last year that estimated that domestic violence occurs in two-thirds of Ugandan households and is four times more likely to target women than men. According to the most recent Uganda Demographic Health Survey from 2006, nearly 70 percent of ever-married women reported having experienced violence by a husband or intimate partner. According to the 2009 Police Crime Report, reported cases of deaths from domestic violence have been increasing, jumping from 137 in 2008 to 165 in 2009. But the Amnesty report also suggests that comprehensive statistics are lacking.

The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women defines gender-based violence as mental, physical or sexual violence against women. Uganda has ratified several international treaties protecting women’s rights and the Ugandan government also passed the Domestic Violence Act last year, indicating that the issue is a priority. But the difference between passing a law and implementing a law are vast. Local nongovernmental organizations and legal organizations say other relevant bills have been pending in Parliament for years.

Advocates say that Ugandans need to change their attitudes toward domestic violence. The Amnesty report found that Ugandan society widely accepts and justifies violence against women, leading to underreporting and inadequate law enforcement.

“The situation on the ground is really bad,” says Hope Turyasingura, CEDOVIP’s technical adviser. “We only access 10 percent of what is happening. What about the people who don’t report abuse?”

Turyasingura says that because domestic violence normally happens at home, people don’t report it because the perpetrators are close relatives, and most likely intimate partners. Turyasingura says reporting some abuses are especially difficult, such as a father who rapes his own children. And even if victims report it, the damage has already been done, she says.

“The girls are already pregnant or HIV-positive,” she says.

She says that other times, the law is an inadequate deterrent.

“[In] early December, about 120 girls were circumcised despite the law and campaigns against genital mutilation,” she says. “This is a violation, but it continues unabated.”

When victims do try to report violence against them, inadequate or dismissive responses from police, medical and judicial personnel block their cases, according to the Amnesty report. For example, the Uganda Law Reform Commission, set up by the constitution to study and review the country’s laws, found that police favor reconciliation over arrests and send women who report domestic violence home to talk to their husbands and re-examine their own actions to see how they may have attracted the violence. Other women reported that police demanded money for fuel to go arrest the suspect, photocopies of the police form, airtime for their cell phones, soda and repayment for the police doctor to do a medical report.

Recently, the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development launched community education programs to sensitize Ugandans to gender-based violence, in which police are required to participate. The Ministry of Health has also developed a clinical manual on the management of gender-based violence survivors. The government has also established Child and Family Protection Units in police stations and posts in Kampala, the capital, to deal with domestic violence cases.

But financial constraints and a lack of specially trained police on abuse prevent the expansion of the units across the country. According to one Kampala police officer, who asked not to be named, police have nowhere to put women who are victims of domestic violence when it is too dangerous for them to go home. There are few state-run clinics, and they, too, face financial constraints.

International treaties require the government here to allocate resources for activities related to eliminating violence against women. But it’s not cheap. Uganda spent $2.5 million USD on eradicating domestic violence in 2007, according to the World Health Organization.

Advocates say that gender roles – the sets of attitudes, behaviors and activities assigned to men and women by society – are the underlying problem because society prioritizes men over women. The situation is complex, Turyasingura says.

Gender roles in Ugandan society are divided from birth, as children are socialized into families in which husbands dominate their wives. According to a 2006 Ministry of Finance report, the tradition of bride price, when men pay women’s families to marry them, conveys women as property from the start. Husbands make all the decisions because they are considered the breadwinners, with women making up just 12 percent of the formal labor force, according to the report. Because of law and tradition, women own just 7 percent of registered land in Uganda. Women’s resulting economic dependence on men leaves them powerless against domestic violence, the report says. They have no say to change their partners’ behavior and no money to leave them.

Violence against men does occur, says Sharon Lamwaka, founder and executive director of the Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence, RECESVID, a local human rights organization, where about 20 men sought assistance in domestic violence cases last year. But the Ministry of Finance report also identified an inequality in access to the justice system, as more male victims reported violence against them to authorities than female victims did.

Turyasingura says that Ugandan society traditionally favors men and blames women. When a relative impregnates a girl, the community is ready to lynch the girl because it says she has done something to attract the man, she says. Women are also not allowed to sit near the driver on the bus because people say they will cause an accident, she says.

Turyasingura says these blaming attitudes toward women need to change in order to lower domestic violence rates.

“This will take a long time, but it’s worth the fight,” Turyasingura says.

Advocates say that attitudes toward counseling need to change, as well. There is a need to sensitize people to domestic violence so they can seek assistance, Tindyebwa says.

“Part of the importance of counseling is that the heavy load has been taken off the clients and they express their gratitude [for] the counseling,” Lamwaka says.

Nakawesi says receiving counseling from RECESVID saved her life.

“If it wasn’t for counseling, I would have committed suicide or done something terrible,” Nakawesi says.

But many Ugandans shun the option. Tindyebwa says that victims are afraid or embarrassed so they keep abuse a secret.

“Counseling is a Western phenomenon,” says Grace Akello, a student at Makerere University. “[We], Ugandans, should learn to handle our problems in a different way.”

Religious institutions are also getting involved. Muslim leaders are mentoring and training their followers to curb domestic violence, Catholic priests are preaching against domestic violence at mass, and the Church of Uganda has also spoken out against abuse. Turyasingura says that religious leaders touch a part of Ugandans that civil societies may not.

“With a collective voice, the war against domestic violence can be won,” she says.