Ugandan Women Want Tougher Laws on Violence Against Women
Sexual abuse: A group demonstrating against violence on women in Kapchorwa district.

Ugandan Women Want Tougher Laws on Violence Against Women

Women’s only hope against domestic violence fades as the DRB is shelved!

By Enoch Mutabaazi
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First published: December 4, 2005

Uganda has joined the rest of the world to commemorate 16 days of activism against violence on women that started on November 25th when the UN marked the day for the elimination of all forms of violence against women.

Many Ugandans led by women and human rights groups have been holding different meetings and demonstrations calling for a tougher law on violence against women, especially the rampant violence that many women face in their homes.

Anti-domestic violence activists accuse government and the parliament of Uganda for deliberately cheating women by not putting in place specific laws against domestic violence, which is pervasive in many families. And if hopes for such law were there, parliament stumbled over it by shelving the Domestic Relations Bill sighting insensitivity from some section of the public.

The Domestic Relations Bill once passed into law is supposed to cater for among others the Sexual Offences between spouses, which is one of the common causes of domestic violence. Currently Uganda has no law punishing spouses who force their partners into sex or marital rape, which are very rampant according to the available research.

The existing law in penal code Chapter 219 says that any person who unlawfully does grievous harm to another commits a felony and is liable to imprisonment for seven years, but this law is general such that it does not consider the circumstances of home set up.

Anti-domestic violence activists in Uganda had hoped that with the DRB, violence against women will be scaled down since it will be defined from other forms of violent acts committed. But this has not been so because the bill has since faced resistance and subsequently put on hold.

Luwero woman Member of Parliament, Prof. Victoria Mwaka says that women feel cheated and unimportant because the bill has been sidelined.

“Women will continue to suffer violence and be deprived of equal opportunities as men due to lack of specific law,” says Professor Mwaka, whose constituents recently demonstrated against the delay to pass the bill into a law.

The Executive Director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, LaShawn R. Jefferson says that the failure by Ugandan government to address domestic violence is costing women their lives. "Any success Uganda has experienced in its fight against HIV/AIDS will be short-lived if the government does not address this urgent problem," she says.

In its 2003 report, the Human Rights Watch said that the Ugandan government's failure to protect women from domestic violence and discrimination increases women's risk of contracting HIV.

In a 77-page report entitled, "Just Die Quietly: Domestic Violence and Women's Vulnerability to HIV in Uganda," many widespread rape and brutal attacks on women by their husbands in Uganda were reported and blamed on lack of a specific law against domestic violence. The Human Rights Watch report says that domestic violence inhibits women's control over sexual matters in marriage, exposing them to danger of contracting HIV.

The inadequacy of the current law in protecting women against violence is a shared concern between women and men. The Bukooli South Member of Parliament, Peter Patrick Ochieng says that the current law is so stiff and does not reach down to protect the vulnerable women who suffer violence silently.

“The current law does not favor women at all because they are exposed to all sorts of abuse and violence in families which, are often swept under the carpet as domestic affairs,” charges Ochieng. However, Ochieng says that there is a need for thorough consultation on the matters affecting some sections of the public before passing the bill into law.

Prof. Mwaka says that the lack of specific law against domestic violence and holding back the DRB has been the most disappointing inadequacies of the 7th parliament. “Many women feel let down by their very government and parliament,” says Prof. Mwaka.

But many MPs have argued that the bill in its current form is controversial and that many religious and other groups have come up in arms against the bill.

At the eve of debating the DRB in Parliament, a section of the Moslem community both women and men demonstrated claiming the law was impinging on their Koranic laws. This forced government to engage them in discussion, which eventually broke down forcing government to hold the debate of the bill for review of some controversial clauses.

Mwaka contends that even if some parts of the bill were viewed controversial, the larger part of it should have been tabled and debated scrapping out the contentious ones. “Domestic Relations Bill is not bad but some people have made it a habit to politicize it making it hard to be passed,” laments Mwaka.

"Being married should not be a death sentence for Ugandan women and they should not have to give up their rights to physical security and sexual autonomy just because they get married." said Jefferson in the Human Rights Watch report.

For more than a decade, Ugandan women's rights advocates have urged government to enact legislation addressing domestic relations and the rape and battery of women by their intimate partners. Yet for years, the bills have languished before they reach or in parliament. The DRB has been proposed for the last 41 years, to provide a fair law to regulate the family institution free from abuse of either parties-wife, husband and children.

THE Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Uganda) has equally been calling on government and Parliament to enact a new law saying the current one is weak.

The Uganda Women's Network (UWONET) in February 2004, recorded cases of women who lost their lives to domestic violence. The study shows that many of the acid pouring cases are committed against women by their spouses or lovers.

A recent study by a U.S. institute of Domestic violence prevention shows that about one in three women living in rural Uganda experiences verbal or physical threats from their partners. Fifty percent of them receive injuries as a result. Another study conducted by John Hopkins University, highlights the links between domestic violence and the consumption of alcohol, as well as a partner's perceived risk of HIV infection.

All these have been brought to the public’s and governments attention giving a good ground on which to base a law on violence against women.

It should be remembered that in 2003 the matter of domestic violence was swept out of the bedroom when the then Vice-President Specioza Wandera Kazibwe publicly revealed that she was a survivor of domestic violence. She has since walked out of the relationship, seeking divorce. But many studies point at many cases of rural women who do not even come out openly to report the abuse for fear of more vicious attacks from their partners. Even if they did, there is no strong law under which they can seek redress and justice.

As it stands now a battered woman can only file a case based on assault, and often, the police ignore the depth of the crime, referring to it just as a 'domestic issue that needs to be sorted out at home’. Sadly, the wait for a fairer law seems to be a long one.

By Enoch Mutabaazi
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First published: December 4, 2005
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Enoch Mutabaazi is a media practitioner at Ultimate Media Consult with more than six years experience in the print and electronic media. Since he majored in Broadcast Journalism at his graduate studies Mutabaazi first worked as a reporter at Uganda Television (now Uganda Broadcasting Corporation TV) before he discovered his multidimensional skills in writing and public relations at Ultimate Media Consult. He is currently the Production Executive at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and writes occasionally.