16 April 2010

Uganda: New Law On Domestic Violence Good But Attitude Change is Vital

It is welcome news that President Museveni has assented to the Domestic Violence Act that aims to punish perpetrators of domestic violence. Welcome and timely as this gesture might be, it is itself insufficient to bring an end to domestic violence, and other forms of Violence Against Women (VAW).

There are many aspects of the new law that will strengthen the fight against domestic violence. For instance, local councils are given a mandate to try cases of domestic violence; fines are set for perpetrators of domestic violence; the law penalises a partner in a domestic relationship who injures or endangers the health of the other; and it is illegal to deny a partner the economic or financial resources to which they are entitled.

This is a great step in the fight against domestic violence in Uganda, but we contend that the law alone may not make much impact in the fight against domestic violence if it is not complemented by attitude and behaviour change. At the moment, there are many areas in Uganda where violence against women is justified, even found acceptable. Worryingly as many as 77 per cent of women in Uganda believe that their husbands beating them is acceptable behaviour.

Such attitudes and practices will not change by the enactment of a law but also through individuals and communities realising that there is no justification for VAW and that all men, women and children need to rise up and oppose it.

I was in Bundibugyo District at the end of March and I was told of a local stereotype which holds that 'women listen from their buttocks while men listen with their ears'. But if men and women were created equal in the image of God, according to the Bible and the Koran, how can they hear using different organs? The sad import of this stereotype is that women are inferior to men, and that it is necessary to beat women in order for them to listen.

Similar stereotypes, myths and attitudes that discriminate against women are also found in other parts of Uganda, and are well known and often-repeated. With the coming of the law against domestic violence, only survivors who are capable of reporting have the opportunity to hold perpetrators to account.

But a change in attitudes, behaviours, customs and traditions that discriminate against women and perpetuate violence against women will provide a long lasting solution and ensure that all men and women enjoy their full rights. Such cultures and traditions that discriminate against women have long passed their expiry dates, and need to be buried forthwith.

Indeed, even some cultural leaders have come to this realisation. On March 29, the King of the Rwenzururu Kingdom, Omusinga Charles Wesley Mumbere Irema-Ngoma, said as much when he launched the 'We Can End All Violence Against Women' Campaign.

Speaking in Kasese District, Irema-Ngoma asked Ugandans to abandon "shameful" and "backward" cultures that discriminate against women, noting that the reason most incidences of domestic violence went unreported was because some communities accepted it as a regular part of daily life.

Across the country, the magnitude of VAW is well appreciated. Its causes and manifestations appear to be equally well understood, as are the negative consequences on individuals, families and communities. Why then do we continue to have high levels of domestic violence?

An unacceptably high number of Ugandan women (more than 78 per cent) continue to experience domestic violence, mostly at the hands of men. It is telling that although the vast majority of cases go unreported, the Police Crime Report for 2009 shows a climb in reported cases of death resulting from domestic violence, from 137 in 2008 to 165 in 2009.

The We Can End Violence Against Women Campaign is mobilising several local partners - including cultural and religious institutions, universities, community-based and non-government organisations and change makers to come together to form a common platform and voice against attitudes and practices that normalise VAW in Uganda.

Change makers who are the champions of the campaign are men and women that undertake a personal change of attitude and behaviour. The change is self-propelled and voluntary. The change-makers then take their experience of change to at least other 10 people within their influence. The campaign hopes to engage at least 10,000 men and women as change makers who will spread the message that violence against women is unacceptable and that equal relationships are violence free.

The five-year campaign will also build alliances made up of a range of local and national partners and civil society organisations working towards ending violence against women in Uganda as well as pursue a positive campaigning approach that will emphasise benefits and involvement by all as opposed to previous campaigns.

In the absence of a change in the social and cultural perception of violence Against Women, state-level action such as passing the new Domestic Violence Law will not be enough to put a stop to the vice.

Ms Oregede is senior programme officer- Prevention of Gender Based Violence at Oxfam in Uganda

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