What you need to know:
In addition to creating awareness about sexual and gender- based violence, shelters have been built for survivors. These establishments exist to provide a place of recovery and hope for survivors, but most importantly a place where women are offered skills and taught ways to prevent them from going through another gender based violence experience.
“I do not beat her anymore. If there is an issue, we discuss issues as a couple. There is no more violence at home,” Samuel Abong says. This change in managing conflict with his wife happened after Abong attended a MenEngage training last year.
“I used to fight over the most trivial things. My children would see me coming and take off. Life is different now,” Abong, a resident of St Kizito Parish Naoi, Moroto Diocese, recounts.
Abong discovered MenEngage when men in his home area were mobilised by the parish and sensitised on parenting, rape, sexual harassment and sexual health.
“I also learnt how to plan for a baby when my wife is pregnant,” he recalls some of the things they were taught. In addition, alcoholism, a big challenge cited by Abong as a cause of gender-based violence, was tackled.
“I would drink alcohol, go home late in the night and disorganise everyone’s sleep. Now I am home by at 7.30pm. Men feel like when they beat a woman, they have solved all their problems, yet, they are inflicting pain on their wives.
They will ask for food, and if it is not there, kiboko! Yet they did not even buy it in the first place,” he says, adding that upbringing and peer influence are a breeding ground for perpetrators of gender-based violence.
Sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) has caused gross violation of human rights of women, girls and men in Uganda. The numbers are staggering and the stories are horrific. Fortunately, that is not where the story ends. Now, something is being done to curb the violence.
Statistics show progress has been registered in sensitising communities on SBGV in the last few years. A UN report states that three in four Ugandans (76 percent) have been sensitised about sexual and gender based violence since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. It also states that 67 percent of GBV survivors sought help.
Several actors have risen to change the status quo by packaging and disseminating information in different ways. As a result, positive results are emerging. MenEngage is one of these actors. The organisation is a social change network that engages men and boys in gender justice.
It holds a view that if men are more involved in home affairs and raising children, violence will naturally subside. Hassan Sekajoolo, the organisation’s country director, explains that getting men to be involved in their homes will help eradicate harmful norms they have been exposed to throughout their lives, and this will consequentially reduce cases of SGBV.
‘‘We have changed men’s perceptions towards women; it is now one of respect and equality. They now look at women as supportive partners. After they complete the training, they do not want to go away because there is so much sharing. We discuss issues of mental health. And once they let go of some societal pressures, they are less likely to be violent. We also empower them with practical steps to ensure they do not escalate or become the source of violence,’’ Sekajoolo says.
With a target on fathers, MenEngage organises 12-week training sessions for men at different stages in their lives. As Abong’s story demonstrates, the impact of MenEngage is being felt. Not only has his perspective on women’s value changed, he also wants other men to change.
He says: “We were given the module of training which we use to train other men for free. After the training, most men are even opting for matrimony, something they did not consider important before.”
Community dialogues about violence
Foundation for Male Engagement is another NGO dedicated to sensitising men on the importance of gender equality. They tackle SGBV at its core by “reaching men in their comfort zones”.
Joseph Nyende, the director, says this model involves finding men in their spaces. ‘‘We go to their drinking joints and boda boda stages, share educative videos and get their feedback.
“We partner with sports betting companies to provide men with educative information,’’ Nyende shares. “We also undertake sensitisation programmes using the community radio,” Nyende adds. The organisation holds community parliaments where men and women engage in dialogues about violence. Nyende mentions that they hope to open an academy where men are trained to become change agents or role model men in order to promote accountability of men to their wives, families and communities.
In addition to creating awareness and sensitising men, shelters have been built for survivors of SGBV. These establishments exist to provide a place of recovery and hope for survivors, but also importantly a place where they are offered skills and taught ways to prevent them from going through another SGBV experience.
The Rising Woman Shelter and Wellness Centre is one of these. It was set up by Uganda Network on Law Ethics and HIV/Aids (UGANET), on May 2, as an emergency response to the rise in SGBV cases due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Based in Kampala, inquisitive faces sitting in a circle look up cautiously as I make my way into the offices. A positive but calm aura fills the air as the girls, young and old, chat away and the children dash left and right. I step into the counsellor’s office. Lucy Chihi, or Jaja as the girls call her, counsels the survivors through trauma, grief, acceptance and coping mechanisms.
“As long as a woman’s life is in danger, we accommodate them at the shelter . There is no situation that cannot be rectified, especially if the survivor is willing to cope. They begin to rise again. We all have dreams and aspirations and I believe these girls have hope for a better life moving forward from here,” Chihi states.
One of the survivors, Ivy Namanda, (not real name), shares that although life was at one point very difficult, she now has hope and can afford to hope for a bright future.
When Namanda was pregnant with her second born, she was mistreated by her partner. ‘‘He poured the food I cooked and repeatedly cut down the banana plantation. I was traumatised by his abusive words everyday. When he tried to kick me out, I reported to the LC 1 and that is when UGANET intervened,’’ she narrates.
Ever since she went to the shelter, she says she has learnt how to bake delicious cakes and make shampoo. She knows that even if she left the shelter today, she would establish an income generating project, manage her finances and make her life more meaningful.
Skills and income generating projects
“I came with another woman who could barely look after herself and her child. I decided to take her child into my care so I looked after both our children. Because of this, I was given a job here. I decided to stay so that I can work and save something for myself,” says Namanda. Apart from learning how to bake and make items such as shampoo, survivors are also taught how to make bags and beaded mats, as well as grow foods such as sukuma wiki, cabbage, tomatoes, passion fruits and mushrooms.
Rhonah Babweteera, the head of gender equality and violence against women prevention department, who is also the shelter manager, explains that they ensure the girls are emotionally sound and armed with skills that prepare them for an enriched life after abuse. ‘‘When women have skills and income, they are less likely to stay in abusive environments as a means of survival,’’ Babweteera states.
Shelters can be a major instrument in recovery for survivors. These safe spaces allow women to heal, learn, and offer an opportunity to enhance their lives as they move forward.
Through counselling, girls learn their worth and their rights, and can therefore, choose better partners in future. This helps them not to experience violence again. These skills taught by shelters are an avenue for economic empowerment, which reduces exposure to SGBV.
The police is also working to fight against SGBV by training its officers. “We are training them to understand the needs of the survivor and the best ways to carry out investigations, coordination and management of these cases,” Rosemary Nalubega, the acting commissioner of sexual and children offences explains.
“You cannot get stuck on recording a statement when someone needs first aid, or looking for evidence when someone’s life is being threatened. So it is upon the officer to get the list of needs and prioritise actions,” she says.
Nalubega adds that in 2021, 500 SGBV desk officers were trained. The officers have also been trained in the psychosocial support of survivors along with basics of wellness for themselves. The commissioner explains that this is because the officers may also experience trauma as a result of handling many SGBV cases.
When asked how they try to make these situations less daunting for children, Nalubega says the interview rooms are made comfortable because children speak up in friendly environments. She adds that in grave cases, an audio and video is recorded for the court so that the survivor does not have to appear physically.
Hurdles to cross over
Even with all the positive steps towards ending SGBV in Uganda, there are stumbling blocks. Ruth Nalule, an advocate working with UGANET, shares that there are “untouchables” who have a lot of influence in society, something that intimidates survivors.
Power imbalances in the workplace and the stigma surrounding sexual violence, especially rape, also contribute to silence of survivors. For example, Safina Virani, co-founder of Frauen Initiative Uganda, shares that some girls that the organisation was supporting, wanted to take legal action but were threatened into silence.
Poverty also causes many cases to be settled out of court. An African Union report notes that “poverty drives unemployed parents to regard children as an economic burden, as unaffordable and girls as potential sources of dowry income.”
“Everyone is looking to benefit from such situations,” Francis Ogweng, a gender activist, HeForShe advocate and Assistant Superintendent of Police notes. He adds that lack of money for transport to police stations and courts also hinders survivors from accessing justice.
Lack of awareness is another roadblock. Virani says most girls do not know what to do when they have been raped or even what abuse looks like. Ogweng adds that people do not know what defilement, incest, or consent is, or their rights.
Neither do they know how to preserve evidence or avoid contaminating a crime scene. He adds that corruption exists from the LC level up to the courts, which usually frustrates cases. Lengthy court processes and witnesses intimidated by court are other challenges that exist.
Despite these, progress has been made in regard to sensitising communities, especially men; empowering survivors by counselling and teaching them skills; training police; doing advocacy, and setting up of toll-free lines.
More work, however, needs to be done in order to bring more stakeholders on board. Alleviating poverty and building rehabilitation centres are areas that need to be prioritised in the fight against SGBV. As people create different ways to end SGBV, it must always be remembered that the survivor comes first.
Parents, children, NGOs, the government, police, the media, cultural leaders, academia, and the general public are challenged to continue to building relationships to fight SGBV as they all have a crucial role to play in accelerating the end to this shadow pandemic.
The fight to end SGBV in Uganda is slow but steady and can be fought well with the right synergies.
Survivor’s needs first
Statistics show progress has been registered in sensitising communities on SBGV in the last few years. A UN report states that three in four Ugandans (76 percent) have been sensitised about GBV since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. It also states that 67 percent of GBV survivors sought help. The police is also working to fight against SGBV by training its officers. “We are training them to understand the needs of survivors and the best ways to conduct investigations, coordination and management of these cases,” Rosemary Nalubega, the acting commissioner of sexual and children offences explains. “You cannot get stuck on recording a statement when someone needs first aid. You cannot look for evidence when someone’s life is being threatened,” she says. Nalubega adds that in 2021, 500 sexual and gender based violence desk officers were trained. The officers have also been trained in the psychosocial support of survivors along with basics of wellness for themselves.
BY Safra Bahumura
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Gender Justice Reporting Initiative.