Sitting on the fence: Dangers of normalising sexual violence against women and girls

Friday May 17 2019


By Patricia Twasiima Bigirwa

Samantha Mwesigye, a senior State Attorney working with Ministry of Justice, who has been sexually harassed since 2005, courageously came forward last week with her story. She has also reported and made known the extent of her abuse to the Solicitor General, Attorney General and his Deputy, IGG and the Prime Minister.
Before that, she had confided in colleagues and friends. Ms Mwesigye has for years been collecting pieces of information that prove the disguising level of abuse she has had to deal with at her place of work. When she finally came forward to share her story, instead of that marking the beginning of justice for her, she has been barraged with more threats, accusations and a lot of other vile treatment. The victim blaming she has received is enough to silence another person who would have wanted to speak out.
This is not the first time we are made aware of a powerful man abusing his power. The media was awash with stories of how such men had used their influence and connections in schools to abuse students and in hotels.
The normalisation of violence against women in Uganda is so deeply engrained in different systems that allow for this sort of violence to prevail, despite existing laws and policies that ought to be protecting women. This is the reason why even though Bugangaizi East MP Onesmus Twinamatsiko publicly advocated violence against women, he remains serving in Parliament with no social or legal.
These are just examples, that we publicly know of, and yet there is yet to be any real reckoning for these men.
The cycle of sexual violence continues because we allow. Our complacency, silence and the myth that sexual violence is insignificant or a matter that must be dealt with privately keeps the wheels turning.
We continue to force women to contend with the fact that businesses, politics and reputations trump the most essential expectation; that our lives matter.
It’s not a stretch to say almost every woman in this country has experienced some form of sexual harassment - from the lewd stares and unwanted touches, unwanted and undesired calls and texts, groping, catcalling, and rape. All these indignities continuously strip you of your humanity slowly, until such a time when it becomes unbearable.
Women have very little to gain from confronting their abusers. Many of us understand that risks involved and the unwanted attention and vitriol it attracts when you publicly shame your abuser.
The limitations of the institutions and individuals in place who are supposed to dispense justice make it even more difficult for cases of sexual violence to be fair to the victims. The system is made by and protects the powerful. This is what allows for victims to be turned into criminals while the perpetrators and coddled and protected.
Ms Mwesigye is just an example of women who continue to suffer at the hands of men who enjoy to abuse their power. Many of us understand the great strengths and heartache of speaking out and, therefore, know why for so many of us, we choose silence instead. Her abuser, like all the powerful men in this country, has stacked up a ton of the rich and powerful to intimidate and refuse her justice.
What then does it say about the society we live in, where women’s lives and daily dignity can be stripped away and this isn’t enough to rouse anger and consequences?
Sexual violence is a matter of national importance and must be treated as such. Samantha’s revelations and the testimonies of many who have spoken about their abuse lays bare the truth and the overwhelming magnitude of the problem that many have been ignoring.
We dare to demand that our leaders and institutions will take up the challenge of confronting all forms of sexual violence wherever it happens in our society.

Ms Bigirwa is a feminist lawyer currently working with Chapter Four Uganda.