Uganda has been embroiled in a brutal armed conflict, particularly in the north since 1986, when President Yoweri K Museveni took over power. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) a rebel group whose aim was to overthrow the government of Uganda, its military campaign instead consisted of attacks on the civilian population in Northern Uganda; raping, mutilating and slaughtering or abducting civilians, raiding villages, looting stores and homes and burning houses and schools are among the atrocities the group committed.
Gross violations of human rights by both the LRA and the Ugandan army including the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) have been documented. Approximately 3/4 of the population in Gulu, Pader and Kitgum for example, has been displaced. In general, approximately 479,328 persons have been forced out of their homes . It is believed that 85% of the LRA’s ranks consist of children who were abducted. LRA combatants and other previous rebel forces in the north abducted some 30,000 people since 1986 including nearly 6,000 persons who were still missing in 2001.
Two years on from the start of the peace negotiations between the government of Uganda and the LRA, the humanitarian situation in the region continued to improve. By September 2007, more than a half of 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) had started the return process, including half a million people who have completed the return and 400,000 who have made initial movements out of the camps . As people resettle, the government army has opened a new front in domestic counter insurgency. A number of ordinary people, especially those living in IDP camps outside Gulu, have been arrested by army patrols especially in the middle of the night, held illegally in army camps and accused of collaborating with the rebels sometimes merely because they are related to some LRA rebels.
In Northern Uganda it is generally believed that many women and the children have suffered more than any other beings there. They have faced violence more especially gender based violence (GBV) committed by state actors and non state actors within in the family and in the community.
Gender based violence has been defined by United Nations Declaration on Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) as violence directed at a person on the basis of gender. That it includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threat of such acts, coercion and deprivation of liberty. GBV is a global phenomenon irrespective of social economic status. Statistics published in 1997 by the World Health Organization of 40 studies conducted in 24 countries in 4 continents revealed that between 20%-50% of the women interviewed reported that they suffered physical abuse by their male partners. The magnitude of GBV in other countries stands as follows; Sri Lanka (60%), Tanzania (60%), Uganda (46%), USA (28%), Canada (27%-36%) .
The survivors of GBV 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 state inaction in ensuring redress. As a result the justice systems ignore, deny and tactically condone violence against women and children and protect suspected perpetrators. Survivors luck access to justice as an issue of serious concern warranting the immediate attention of the Ugandan government and the international community. According to Amnesty International, the female victims experience a frustrating experience in attempting to access justice, the discrimination they suffer in the process and the entrenched culture of impunity that prevails regarding cases of rape, defilement, domestic violence, assault and other violence.
At the height of displacement in Northern Uganda, 2 million people were either in camps or in locations other than their areas of origin. Since the government of Uganda and the LRA announced their intention to negotiate a peaceful end to the 21 years old conflict in Uganda and still more since the signing of the cessation of hostilities on 23rd August 2006, there has been a gradual improvement in the security situation in the north.
There have been substantial reductions in IDPs number, notably in the Lango region. By March 2007, 76% of IDPs in the Lango region had already returned to their villages of origin while 24% in the Acholi were in their new settlements. While for Lira district, the return is almost complete, the return and integration process has had a few hitches elsewhere. However, the districts of Pader, Kitgum, Gulu and Amuria have been slow in responding to complete return. It will be recalled that these districts were the epicenter of the conflict, as such; the people still fear reprisals and feel insecure still. Rather than a complete return to their original homes, transit camps near the original homes for may have been established. This measure has seen a decongestion as many IDPs have moved from the original camps to transit camps pending the eventual return to their homes. This is the case for the above-mentioned districts.
Gender based violence in Northern Uganda is very significant. According to the Ministry of Health-Uganda and World Health Organization (WHO) the magnitude of forms of GBV is as follows; wife Battering (30%), Marital rape (12%), defilement (25%), rape (20%), sexual exploitation (13%). Sexual and other forms of abuse against women is not specific to northern Uganda; it has occurred in all war situations; for instance, in the Rwenzori regions, Eastern Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Eritrea to mention a few. In the case of Uganda, the subordinated status of women in non war situations was aggravated during armed conflict by their extreme vulnerability, compounded by the general confusion, lack of social control mechanisms, poverty and poor access to resources which reign in conflict settings. Moreover more women compared to men remain unarmed and unprotected at a time when traditional forms of moral, community and institutional safeguards have disintegrated and weapons have proliferated, making them particularly vulnerable to all kinds of violations. Women and girls in war affected districts in Northern Uganda have been the brunt of violence in several ways. They have been exposed to rape and defilement, have experienced physical and psycho social injury, and have been exploited and denied resources. In cases of dire desperation women and girls have had to succumb to selling their bodies for their survival and that of their families.
From a gender perspective, the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda is acclaimed as being one of the only two gender sensitive constitutions in Africa. The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda has provided leverage in sustaining this campaign. This is based on a number of articles which provide among many the following; equal treatment in all spheres of life under the law regardless of sex, protection of all persons from deprivation of property; entitlement of both women and men to equal rights during and after marriage, the state is mandated to take affirmative action in favor of groups marginalized on the basis of gender or any other reason created by history, tradition or custom; further the constitution avers that the state shall provide facilities and opportunities necessary to enhance the welfare of women to enable them realize their full potential and advancement; women are also accorded affirmative action for purposes of redressing the imbalances created by history, tradition or custom and the Constitution also mandates parliament, among other things, to make laws for the establishing of an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) for the purpose of giving effect to constitutional mandates expressed therein.
Under statutory law of Uganda, the Penal Code Cap 120, some acts of sexual violence against women in Uganda are legally viewed as crimes against morality. The definitions of rape, defilement, prostitution, and other sexual offences fall under the offences against morality section of the Penal Code Act and not as crimes against the physical and mental integrity of women and girls. This has been criticized by some feminist who urge for the inclusion of this crimes under crimes against a person; by referring to them as crimes against minority implies that women are given limited value as persons/human beings. In addition the Act under Chapter 23 provides punishment for common assault and grievous bodily harm as a misdemeanor liable to imprisonment for five years; these criminal acts too are involved in GBV. Uganda amended its Penal Code Act in 2007, expanding the definition of defilement. Section 129 provides the death penalty for the offence of aggravated defilement for example if the offender is infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and if found guilty the punishment is a death sentence.
The Children Act also protects the children from abuse, including the girl children from GBV. In December 2009, the Parliament of Uganda passed the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Act, which prohibits Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It provides for a prison term not exceeding 10 years for those who perform any FGM and imprisonment of up to five years for those who participate in or aid the process. However if the victim dies, suffers a disability or is infected with HIV during the procedure, the sentence is life imprisonment.
The Domestic Violence Act passed by parliament in November 2009 and assented to by the president on 17th March, 2010 is intended to provide for the protection and relief of victims of domestic violence; to provide for the punishment of perpetrators of domestic violence; to provide for the procedure and guidelines to be followed by the court in relation to the protection and compensation of victims of domestic violence; to provide for the jurisdiction of court; to provide for the enforcement of orders made by court; to empower the family and children court to handle cases of domestic violence and for related matters. The Act prohibits domestic violence, it makes it an offence to engage in domestic violence and anyone who commits it is liable to an imprisonment not exceeding 2 years or/and to a fine of 960,000 Ug.Shs (430.US$) and court may order the offender to compensate the victim.
It is also worth noting that there are pending bills in parliament that are of relevance to GBV; before it was withdrawn and split into the Marriage and Divorce Bill, and the Administration of Muslim Personal Law in 2008, the Domestic relations Bill sought to address socially sanctioned practices responsible for much violence against women in the home, including by outlawing polygamy and wife inheritance. The Sexual Offences (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2004, which is also pending in parliament, not only recognizes marital rape as a crime but also provides that a person convicted of marital rape shall, in addition to a sentence of imprisonment or a fine, be ordered to compensate a victim.
Uganda, as a state party to the CEDAW is bound by provisions that place obligations on governments to ensure that private citizens and enterprises do not abuse women’s rights. Article 2 of CEDAW sets out these obligations: “States Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women” Ugandan government and the civil society have therefore developed and adopted some of the policies related to the prevention of GBV against women and they include; The National Gender Policy (NGP) which is a policy document that outlines the legitimacy of gender equality as a fundamental value that should be reflected in Uganda’s development choices, poverty reduction strategies and institutional practices; the National Health Policy which is to the effect that “Sexuality and sexually related behavior and gender relations including child sexual abuse, violence against women, genital mutilation and other harmful practices shall routinely be taken into consideration and addressed in collaboration with the relevant stakeholders”. Areas of priority include the Uganda National Minimum Health Care Package that mentions reduction of GBV as one of its objectives; the National AIDS Policy which also provides for Gender-based HIV vulnerability and all aspects of cultural attitudes and practices regarding sex and sexuality that put women at risk; the National Policy Guidelines and Service Standards for Reproductive Health (2001), its relevant areas include post-abortion care, adolescent sexual and reproductive health, STIs/HIV/AIDS, gender practices and it also recognizes the gender dimension of GBV and states it as a national priority; other policies include, The Social Development Plan; the National Equal Opportunities Policy and Action Plan; and the National HIV/AIDS Strategic Plan. The goal of these policies is gender equality and justice, women’s empowerment and the elimination of discrimination. As far as conflict and war affected areas are concerned: the Uganda’s National Policy for IDPs (2004) commits government to guarantee the IDPs’ rights during displacement and promote durable solutions by facilitating voluntary return, resettlement, integration and re-integration and this guarantee protects IDPs from GBV; The PRDP 2007-2010 is a strategy to eradicate poverty and improve the welfare of the populace in Northern Uganda. Under its guiding principles there is mainstreaming crosscutting issues, HIV/AIDs, gender, environment, and human rights. Under its strategic Objective 1 i.e. consolidation of state authority, the priority activities for police enhancement program include Community Policing that will focus on four areas: Child and family protection; educating the communities on how to support police activities; Promotion of Human rights; and dealing with Domestic violence.
Despite the adoption of a gender-sensitive Constitution in 1995, legislative provisions that discriminate against women continue to exist in Uganda. Domestic legislation has not been consistently harmonized with constitutional principles relating to non-discrimination and equality between women and men, particularly Articles 21, 31 and 33 of the Constitution. There are some examples of discriminatory laws against women in Uganda on the basis of sex. Without providing an exhaustive overview of all such laws there are main legislations for example those in areas of divorce, criminal definition of adultery, succession and polygamous marriages in which there are clear de jure discrimination.
Uganda’s Constitutional Court has confronted some of these discriminatory laws against women. Two significant cases (both brought, inter alia, by women organizations) have so far been decided by the Constitutional Court involving discriminatory laws against women in Uganda. The first case, Uganda Association of Women Lawyers and 5 others v. The Attorney General sought a declaration that sections 4(1) and (2), 5, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 26 of the Divorce Act Cap 249 that set stricter evidentiary standards for women, when seeking a divorce; women had to show that their husbands had not only committed adultery, but also provide evidence for additional grounds for divorce such as bigamy, sodomy, rape and desertion, discriminated on the basis of sex and contravened the Constitution and thus were held null and void. The second case, Law and Advocacy for Women in Uganda v. Attorney General of Uganda, sought a declaration that section 154 of the Penal Code Act which in effect made it lawful for a married man to have an affair with an unmarried woman but unlawful for a married woman to have an affair with an unmarried man and some provisions of the Succession Act were inconsistent with Articles 20(1) (2) (3), 24, 31(1) and 33(6) of the Constitution and infringed the international conventions that Uganda is a signatory to, court struck down these discriminatory provisions.
It is notable from the foregoing that de jure inequality has been, and remains in some respects, a major impediment to the enjoyment of human rights of women in Uganda and has greatly contributed to GBV against them despite the fact that the Constitution and some statutes guarantees equality of men and women and prohibits discrimination.
The guarantee of non-discrimination and equal treatment in relation to all human rights under international and domestic law is an obligation of immediate effect. However, it remains a myth in Uganda due to the resilience of the structures of patriarchy, tradition and entrenched practice of discrimination and violence against women and girls. Discrimination and violence against certain groups still exists in practice, particularly with regard to girls, women, children with disabilities, women refugees, women infected with HIV/AIDS etc.
Wide-ranging measures are thus required to combat all forms of discrimination and violence against women in Uganda including through the enactment and implementation of more laws and policies which confront discrimination in the public and private sectors. However it is apparent that there has been a lack of political will to enact laws to give practical effect to the constitutional guarantees of equality of men and women as reflected in the reluctance to repeal the discriminatory laws or the unwillingness that was exhibited to enact the Domestic Relations Bill 2003 (DRB) into law. When considering Uganda’s state reports in May 2009, the CEDAW Committee expressed concern at the slowness of the law reform process, given the Constitutional provisions that promote equality between women and men and prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sex.
Physical violence against women is the most prevalent. Women especially the married ones were subjected to kicking, beatings, maiming and sometimes killings and in this contexts it is their husbands that were perpetrators. Women also were denied and deprived of their land by some community members and their in-laws; after the war all returnees were affected with land wrangles and because of their statuses, women were the most affected. In relation to the young girls, defilement and child neglect was still a very big challenge. It was noted that cases of GBV are more than the known ones because many victims in most cases did not report the cases due to many reasons including fear for their lives.
Every person irrespective of their sex can be affected by GBV because the research noted that even men and young boys faced some forms of GBV. Some women were engaged in beating their husbands, cheating on them while others would take away family property with them and the boys too faced child neglect and forced labor. It is worth noting that however much men and young boys faced GBV, women and young girls in return areas were the most affected. Because of; their weak statuses and positions, their roles that are embodied in the private realm and the general bias against women and girls as per different traditions and cultures, women and girls continued to face violence more than the men. The married women are the most affected women because it is usually presumed that at marriage, their husbands legally have absolute control over them including subjecting them to violence.
GBV against women is mostly perpetrated by the men. 100 per cent of the interviewed respondents admitted that the men were the most perpetrators. Young boys are mainly involved in issues like defiling, beating and verbally abusing young girls where as married men are the most perpetrators of physical assaults, marital rape, early marriages etc. In particular the drunkards take precedent over all kinds of male perpetrators. Over consumption of alcohol in return areas is a very big challenge and whenever men got engaged in the act they resorted to raping women and selling off family produce in search for money to buy alcohol. The community in one way or another has been found to have perpetrated GBV against women. In return areas the community has been held responsible for ensuring women are prevented from owning land and in most cases they have prevented the victims especially the rape victims from reporting to police because of the negative attitude it gives such victims.
Generally it can be held that all the forms of gender based violence in return areas are mainly directed towards women and young girl. This strongly illustrates the societal set up of return areas which are characterized by a patriarchal system that promotes oppression of women and the dominance by the men. Gender based violence can thus lead to life-threatening outcomes and has to be addressed; it can also has as serious physical and mental outcomes on women, especially in the long-term.
There are several contributing factors to gender based violence against women in return areas. There are also persistent obstacles and challenges to women’s participation and full involvement in the prevention and resolution of conflicts as a result of violence, intimidation and discrimination, which erode women’s capacity and legitimacy to participate in post-conflict public life, and acknowledging the negative impact this has on durable peace, security and reconciliation, including post-conflict peace building and women’s safety.
Over consumption of alcohol has got the greatest impact on GBV; over 80 percent of the respondents interviewed argued that alcohol is the main cause of GBV. However other salient factors including poverty and lack of income generating activities entail a big role in GBV against women.
It is worth noting that the perceptions and attitudes on GBV are greatly affected by culture and the general ignorance about the rights of women. Just like any other subscriber of a certain culture, the respondents were not willing to criticize some of their cultural attitudes that contributed to GBV against women. These cultural beliefs brain washed majority people and had encouraged bias against women and girls. Without advising people in return areas to despise their traditions, the many NGOs available in these return areas have resorted to educating and sensitizing the masses about the salient dangers of certain practices hence changing the different attitudes and perceptions on GBV for example many families had started valuing girl child education.
Generally the factors contributing to gender based violence against women in return areas, have a link to power relations within the household and in the community where women are powerless and are being oppressed by the men who dominate over them. But also these factors derive from the fact that people were once displaced and encamped. Others are associated to the wider processes that control the economy for example women are not entitled to work because their husbands cannot allow them to. All the same the armed conflict in Northern Uganda for more than 20 years and now post conflict do have a big role to play in the gender based violence. What is at stake is what could be done to mitigate the impact of gender based violence.