“It was a very cold morning. I will never forget my sister’s mutilated face. She was hardly recognisable. I was filled with rage. I had never been that angry before in my life. Her husband had waited for me to leave for school before beating her to pulp. It was like a scene out of a thriller. I had never known him as violent man. We all thought he was an angel of a husband” – Christopher narrates his first shocking experience of domestic violence in his family.
Violence against women is the most pervasive human rights abuse in the world, affecting communities in every country. According to the United Nations Population Fund, one in every three women experience some form of abuse in their lifetime and yet very few talk about it.
The COVID-19 lockdowns and movement restrictions in 2020 heightened the ungodly human rights violations against women and girls. The lives of majority of women and girls will never be the same. Not only were their sources of livelihood grossly affected, but their lives were shattered with physical, emotional and sexual assault. Closed up at home with their tormentors, wives were battered and some killed by their husbands. Girls were raped and sexually assaulted by their neighbours and close relatives, including their fathers.
Media reports indicated that in most communities, cases of violence and discrimination against women and girls increased during the COVID-19 lockdowns. At a press conference at the virtual International AIDS Society (IAS) Conference on HIV Science, an HIV-prevention specialist with the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Kampala, Uganda, Ms. Rose Apondi, observed that compared to the six months before the lockdown in 2020, the six months after the pandemic indicated a 24% rise in reports of rape and a 30% increase in sexual violence experienced by teenage girls.
COVID-19 restrictions also caused a lapse in the provision of Gender Based Violence (GBV) services, which were not initially prioritized as essential health services. A police constable recalls one night during the first COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda. “Annette (not real name), a mother of two, aged one and six, told me that she had locked herself in one of the rooms in the house. I remember her saying, ‘I’m scared for my life and my children’s lives.’ She was holding the baby while on the phone with me. Her aggressor was trying to unlock the door. She had locked herself away because he had been forbidden from leaving the house. The aggressor heard her talking to us on the phone. I don’t think he believed that police would intervene.” The police went to Annette’s house and her husband was cautioned.
According to the 2020 Annual Police Crime Report, 17,664 cases of domestic violence were reported, compared to 13,693 in 2019, indicating an increase of 29 percent. Statistics from the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development indicate that between March 30 and April 28, 2020, a total of 3,280 GBV cases were reported to police countrywide. This was in addition to 283 cases of violence against children. Police attributes excessive alcohol consumption as the leading cause of GBV.
In Tororo, a district in Eastern Uganda, many girls did not return to school when educational institutions re-opened. Many were either pregnant, breastfeeding, or even married. A mini-survey conducted in the district revealed that more than 100 underage girls had been impregnated since the closure of schools in March 2020.
As a country, Uganda has worked hard to address GBV, but its prevalence remains high. The 2016 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey revealed that up to 22% of women aged 15 to 49 in the country had experienced some form of sexual violence. The report also revealed that annually, 13% of women aged between 15 and 49 are sexually violated. This translates to more than 1 million women in Uganda being exposed to sexual violence every year.
Given its commitment to advance women’s economic justice and rights, Uganda needs to strengthen its accountability mechanisms and enact gender responsive economic laws and policies and deliberately compile sex-disaggregated data and gender statistics. As women become economically and socially empowered, the availability of data will not only help women to rebuild their businesses in the post-COVID-19 era but also guarantee their security against abuse, in particular GBV.
The lack of effective laws in Uganda poses a huge challenge to the fight against GBV. It is unfortunate that despite having the Penal Code (Amendment) Act 2007, the Domestic Violence Act 2010, the Sexual Offences Act and the Marriage and Divorce Bill, these pieces of legislations do not address key aspects of GBV. None of these laws has criminalised marital rape. In May 2021, when the Parliament of Uganda passed the Sexual Offences Act, the amendment requiring consent for sexual acts failed to gain majority support of the parliamentarians.
It is commendable that Uganda is among the 16 African governments that submitted its commitment of USD 577 million to the attainment of the aspirations of Generation Equality. The commitment has been applauded as a positive step towards eliminating Gender Based Violence (GBV) and promoting women’s economic justice and rights in Uganda. The government should invest in increasing awareness of and access to coordinated, survivor-centered, comprehensive, quality and affordable police, justice, health and social services for women and girls who have been subjected to GBV, including for adolescent girls and young women and in response to COVID-19 and other conflict and crisis contexts.