Given what was at stake especially as far as the reopening of schools was concerned, I sat through the presidential address on the Covid 19 pandemic last weekend. My heart sank with the closure of schools which by the way has serious gendered implications for women as primary care givers but that is a conversation for another day.
I was rather intrigued by the way the lady (Nakyambadde) narrated her ordeal with thieves who had broken into her house and attempted to sexually assault her. Hours prior, the NTV evening news had reported the gruesome rape and murder of a 70-year-old woman in Kayunga District. As a scholar with a keen interest in violence against women, it all seemed too familiar. Sexual violence against women is a global phenomenon and is a violation of women’s human rights. The scope of the problem is difficult to decipher given that victims seldom report cases. A 2018 World Health Organisation study on prevalence of the vice conducted in 160 countries showed that one in three women had experienced sexual violence.
While all women can potentially be victims of the vice, the risk factors differ with some women at an increased risk of being victims than others. Risk factors include level of education with less educated women more likely to face sexual violence as well as community norms that privilege male sexual aggressiveness and female sexual subordination. Many a time, people are quick to blame victims of sexual violence for their predicament. You hear comments about what she was doing outside at such a late hour, how she was dressed and how she should have known better because men are like that! Society makes it look like sexual violence is written in men’s DNA. It is little wonder that victims of sexual violence seldom speak out because many a time the shame is on the victim. Many a time, male perpetrators of sexual violence go scot-free which not only emboldens them but also sends out a message to would be perpetrators that you can sexually violate women and get away with it.
The government, particularly the courts of law as well as security agencies have an important role to play in curbing sexual violence. Evidence has always been a major hurdle in solving such crimes. In some cases the standard of proof is set too high in such a way that it works in the interests of perpetrators. The recounting of experiences of sexual violence has been noted to be traumatising for victims and so is cross examination. Security agencies need to heavily invest in forensic technology that could enable the use of forensic science in investigating sexual crimes. While such crimes might not be solved in the short term, forensic science does ensure that they will be solved years or decades from now. While justice in such cases may have been delayed, it does give closure both to victims and their families that the perpetrators did not walk away scoot free. It also sends out a clear message to perpetrators of sexual crimes that they can and will be persecuted. In the USA, this kind of technology is helping to net perpetrators of sexual violence from crimes that are as old as five decades.
However forensic science alone is not enough as perpetrators may claim that sexual encounters were in fact consensual with the alleged victim bringing up allegations for personal gain. This is especially so in cases where the victim and the perpetrator knew each other prior to the incident. It becomes one’s word against another’s! This points to the importance of how investigations are carried out as well as the consideration of the totality of evidence.
Society too has to question and problematise its gendered beliefs and expectations about sexuality. While such expectations are fluid and are constantly reconstructed, the notions of the ideal man and woman still exist with many of them subduing the sexuality of women.
Ms Agnes Namaganda, PhD, is a researcher and activist with a keen interest in sexual violence, especially that which affects marginalised communities.