When it comes to sexual violence against women in Uganda, Doreen Lwanga says it is about time men start seeing women as human beings and not sexualised objects.
Within Uganda, it is common to hear arguments that men rape women because women wear indecent clothing or invite men into their homes or drink late into the night with men or accept a ride home.
Much less discussion focuses on the male's responsibility. Why should we blame women for giving men the benefit of the doubt as fellow human beings, and whose company, support and helping hand we can supposedly count on when in need?
To put this conversation in context is the 26 July story in Uganda's The Daily Monitor newspaper, which stated that the vice chancellor of Makerere University was being accused of rape. According to the story, Professor Venansius Baryamureeba is alleged to have forcibly had sex with a 26-year-old female in her home in March this year. This was allegedly after he refused to leave her apartment after dropping her off from a drink out with two other male friends.
According to the story, Baryamureeba claimed he was too drunk to drive home, so the woman offered him a sofa to sleep on. However, he allegedly moved into her bedroom in the middle of the night and allegedly had forced sex with her. He allegedly pleaded with her not to report the incident to the police to protect his university leadership and future political ambitions, reported the Daily Monitor. However, the victim later sought the intervention of the Uganda Human Rights Commission when Baryamureeba allegedly refused to provide support to her when she discovered she was pregnant.
Instead of compassion for the woman, the public has swiftly condemned the complainant as a reckless and oversexed con-woman. Ensuing debates and responses in the media since the story broke have left me disturbed.
During a discussion of this case with three male colleagues, it became clear to me that even as rape victims, women bear the brunt and responsibility of protecting themselves. My male colleagues seemed to suggest that men in general are evil, and women and 'guardians of the female' should stay far away from them. Arguably, women should know better than to have late-night drinks with male colleagues, or accept a ride home. But to me, such reasoning leaves no room for holding men accountable for disrespecting women and themselves. One of my male colleagues argued that if a male housekeeper abuses the female child under his care, then the mother is responsible for leaving her baby girl in his care. Judging from their assertions, men as neighbours, brothers, and fathers are 'natural' sexual predators, whom we should keep far away from the girl-child and women.
Further comments on the case in the Ugandan dailies have accused the complainant of seeking to benefit financially. Others have called her a reckless woman, who went out drinking late into the night with three men, and thereafter allowed a man to drive her home and enter her home. The Red Pepper, an explosive Ugandan daily, has described the complainant as an oversexed woman belonging to a clique of con-girls that target Uganda's rich and powerful men like the 'good university don'. (see Red Pepper, 28 July)
Never mind that none of the media houses has since endeavored to publicise Baryamureeba's sexual past. There are also suggestions of political blackmail by the ruling NRM government, which is supposedly scared of Baryamureeba's political ambitions for the presidency.
Already, Makerere seems to be absolving Baryamureeba of any wrongdoing before the truth around the allegations are uncovered. This, together with comments from the chair of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, Med Kaggwa - who was quoted in The New Vision of 27 July saying that investigations were about paternity not rape - seems to be exonerating Baryamureeba.
Kaggwa's comments seem to suggest that we should concern ourselves only with the paternity issue and leave out the larger case of sexual violence. Just because a young woman goes out for drinks with a male is not necessarily an invitation for sex with her. Several women relate to males without expecting that they will pounce on them. Whereas some male colleagues have proven their female colleagues wrong, it is not true that all men are evil and that any female interaction with men should be dreaded and avoided. Often, we assume that we are relating with colleagues, who are out to have as much fun as we are without seeking to harm us. Even if there are any feelings, we do not necessarily have to act on them out of respect and love for the relationship. As humans, we own our emotions and have the capacity to govern and control ourselves and not to degenerate into loose cannons. Thus, men who violate women should not feel entitled to an unlimited right to express their sentiments toward women. Similarly, no one should defend a man who forcefully engages a woman in an unwanted sexual act, while shifting the responsibility to protect on to the female victim.
As I have said elsewhere, there is a common public perception that those who commit awful acts are not 'like us or among us' but wrong, deranged people with a problem. Yet male sexual predators have no face or status and include high-profile men.
Makerere University should remember that the institution does not belong to only those who run it, but to all of us who went through it, identify with it, have funded it and cherish to rebuild its international image as a centre of academic excellence. For Uganda as a whole, we need to revisit the idea of a 'Men's Club' and how men can uphold their respectful place as members of a society shared with women as human beings and not sexualised objects. Men are not inertly evil, as some seem to suggest, but those who commit evil acts are abusing their power and privilege to violate women.
Doreen Lwanga is a socio-political critic and human rights activist.