The buzzer of the call centre phone went off slightly more than 100 times every day of the Covid-19 induced lockdown. A call centre agent at Uganda Network on Law Ethics and HIV/Aids (UGANET)picked every time and on the other end was a woman in distress.
“Save me from this place. I have been thrown out of my home. The man has disappeared with my children and abandoned me in a rented house. The man is beating me….,”
On some days, all the agents heard was a fighting couple, a man beating his partner. The call ended prematurely with a man scooping the phone away before the agents could get the victim’s name and location. Where the victim gave a hint of the location, UGANET tracked her down with the help of police.
Effects of lockdown
One month into the lockdown, UGANET tracked down Mercy Nantumbwe (not real names) following a tip-off from her friends and a local self-help group.
Her husband, John Ssenfuka, was loving and visionary. For two years, she saw every day of her future with him. But the relationship crumbled when financial struggles set in. The Shs2,000 he left home each day could no longer cater for the family’s needs.
“He asked me to dig in order to supplement the family’s income. When the harvest came, I would have to ask him for permission to pick any food from my garden. He had reduced the money he used to leave at home by half,” Nantumbwe says.
Suspicions of infidelity cracked the relationship further. “He would pack food from my garden and every time I asked, he would remind me that it is his land I till,” she says.
His comments came with a stark warning to pack her bags and leave his house. His money stopped coming. He stopped coming home too. At times, his lover showed up in his company. She was not to make any money. There were new rules to only safeguard the house. She was not to till his land. Every basket she wove for sale was destroyed. He took away her phone and the final nail on the coffin was denying that he fathered her two children.
“I borrowed a phone to talk to my sister. He was from the garden so he came at me with a hoe. We fought until his brother intervened. This was the second time he was battering me.”
Battered and chased
Nantumbwe was not one to keep silent so she reported each case to the village chairperson. In her soiled and torn clothes, she made a statement at police, piling on the many that infuriated Ssenfuka and his family. They hounded her to leave. She insisted there was no returning to her parents’ home.
Rhonah Babweteera, the head of gen der equality and violence against women prevention at UGANET knows this pattern all too well. Marital issues are still viewed as bedroom secrets. Women who speak out and understand their right to protection from abusive relationships are considered insolent.
Many remain tight-lipped. In most cases, women refuse to leave their abusers because of dependency.
“They ask you who will provide for the family if he is detained in police custody. She also wonders what society will talk about her if they get to know she has jailed the father of her children. For some, we tried to force out of their homes but they refused and died there,” Babweteera says.
Domestic violence remains a global concern. Statistics from United Nations Women indicate that one in three women experience violence in their lifetime.
In Uganda, the Annual Crime Rate 2019 states that a total of 13,693 cases of domestic violence were reported to police compared to 13,916 reported in 2018. The report released by police shows disputes over family property, failure to provide for the family, infidelity, drug and alcohol abuse caused the violence.
A total of 1,390 cases were taken to court, out of which 359 cases secured convictions. Twenty one cases were acquitted, 288 cases were dismissed and 722 cases were still pending in court. More than 5,000 cases were still under investigations. About 14,232 people were victims of domestic violence, of whom 9,978 were female adults. Approximately 670 were male juveniles while 676 were female juveniles.
Having lived a life where little was expected of her as a girl, Evelyn Letiyo, the programme specialist of ending violence against women at UN Women relates with the victims’ issues. She barely remembers a time when she was prepared to spot the signs of domestic violence. She says for many families, violence is a lifestyle.
“Last year alone, we witnessed an overwhelming manifestation of violence in the realm of economic violence and physical violence that ended in intimate partner death as well as sexual violence,” she says.
More cases during lockdown
Most of the violence is attributed to Covid-19 lockdown. Anecdotal data from UN Women partners indicates violence against women between March and September increased by 50 per cent. Anxiety and frustration increased among men. Women, on the other hand, were left reliant on men with their sources of livelihood shut down.
“The situation led to women being locked up for long hours with their potential perpetrators,” Letiyo says, “Women could not access their social support networks. Beyond being able to talk to their mothers, women could not go to police or Uganda Association of Women Lawyers.”
Frank Mugabi, the communications officer of Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, describes the numbers as appalling but not shocking given that many cases go unreported. He says government efforts to respond to domestic violence date back as far as 1990. Most recently, on November 27, government enlisted traditional leaders, who work towards eliminating cultural practices that promote gender-based violence.
“Expect to see an increase in traditional leaders speaking out on gender-based violence,” Mugabi says. Although their impact is questionable, initiatives such as Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Programme, the Youth Livelihood Programme, Emyooga and Operation Wealth Creation are expected to help.
“Poverty is the driving force for gender-based violence. If household incomes are improved, there will be a reduction in violence,” Mugabi says.
Letiyo speaks to government’s efforts as progressive. She sees a government putting up a fight through legislation, gender policy and implementation of actions set forth by international instruments on ending violence against women.
“We can boast of a government that has put in place a law on domestic violence,” she says. Letiyo believes the law addresses some issues and reinforces groups that respond to cases even at community level.
“We have community development officers and gender officers who try to ensure issues are addressed at the local government level,” she says, “I would not score us lowly. The commitment and infrastructure are there.”
Women rights’ activists point to investment. “If you look at the Ministry of Gender budget or to community development officers, you will realise they are not enough to address issues that we are flagging here,” Letiyo says. The social development sector under which the Ministry of Gender is enshrined, received Shs172.2b in the financial year 2020/2021, accounting for 0.38 per cent of the 45 trillion budget. The Justice, Law and Order sector with which the Gender ministry works received Shs2 trillion.
“Where resources have been available, police performance has been commendable. Where there are no resources, police has been blamed for being non-functional when, in actual sense, they are incapacitated. When a case is registered, police needs transport to pick the victim and search for perpetrators. They cannot perform miracles. Resources should be increased if we are to see change in our justice system,” Babweteera says.
Activists are pushing communities to question the legitimacy of violence and start to see men and women as equal beings. They believe a review of the domestic violence law, particularly the sentences therein will deter perpetrators. The intervention extends to women empowerment too and hopefully, the Succession bill brought before Parliament can offer women and girls a bigger percentage to their partner’s and parents’ property.
Activists say numbers of domestic violence cases against women are hard to project but a decline and total elimination remains their vision. After 16 years in the fight, Tina Musuya, the executive director at the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention has seen more cases of men controlling what women do, their incomes and investments, as well as cases where women cannot even negotiate for their sexual rights.
“We have not made substantial progress on gender equality. We have norms that tolerate violence against women. We have religious norms that preach female subordination and male dominance. The marriage is prioritised over the safety of a woman,” Musuya says.
Look out for another woman
She wants women to look out for themselves and for men to be kinder too. “Women’s wellness is extremely important. Divide the work at home so you all have time to rest. Improved communication in these difficult times can help and be mindful to check in with each other so that home remains a place to thrive and to love,” Musuya explains.
A victim can only be considered a survivor after accepting they have a problem and are willing to accept guidance to freedom. Nantumbwe has since put years of emotional and physical abuse behind her.
“I stayed strong for my children and I am providing for them. I made so much noise at police. I would have been killed or killed myself because I thought about it. Through counselling at the shelter, I have now learnt how to make beads, table mats, shoes, bags, liquid soap, sanitiser and hand washing gel. I also got a job here to look after other women and children at the shelter,” she adds.
Nantumbwe says she’s healed and will find complete peace once her seven-year-old daughter, who currently lives with her father, gets into her custody. Will she ever find love again? “Not again. What are the chances that I will not go through the same violence?” she wonders.
For women experiencing domestic violence, there is support in every way. Police has a child and family protection unit. Organisations such as UN Women work with women lawyers and Uganda Law Society to ensure women who cannot hire attorneys can get free legal services.
UGANET provides psychosocial support because women need to heal from the abuse by talking through their emotions. Google Playstore has an application, “Centres4Her” which helps to locate the service points for victims. There are shelters across the country that offer emergency services in case a woman’s life is at risk.
How to survive an abusive relationship Rhonah Babweteera of UGANET counsels: “Recognise that there is a problem. Be ready to seek support. If the violence is life threatening, report to nearest police station. Move away from the violence as you try to settle your differences through your social support system. Allow yourself, your body, heart and mind, to heal through processes.
Find something that you love to do to keep yourself busy in order to avoid going into depression. Do not blame yourself for the abusive situation. Once you have undergone this, assess whether the abusive marriage is worth your or your partner’s life because uncontrolled emotions can cause unforeseen crimes.”