Sitting under a large tree by the roadside, just outside a police station in Loreeng village, Rupa sub-county in Moroto District, a group of women chant war songs, egged on by an old woman. To wet their throats, they take swigs from blue plastic jars. The atmosphere is charged. There is trouble brewing as the women wait for the Council of Elders to sit in judgment over a case.
A woman had planted sorghum on her acre of land. A few days ago, a man destroyed the garden and attempted to grab the land. As the women sing, the elders send some youths to drag the man to the meeting. The police will only come in to observe the judgment.
Josephine Lokongo, an elder, says the songs are too obscene to be translated to English.
"In our culture, women sanction punishment. If that man does not appear, these women will curse him. He might even die."
Taking charge of her situation
Lokongo, a teacher, was widowed in 2010, when the last of her nine children was two-weeks-old. "My husband paid 100 cows as my bride price so after his death, his brothers tried to inherit me. They stopped me from teaching saying it made me proud. Luckily, in 2013, we (Karamoja elders) were trained by FIDA Uganda about women's rights. I returned to Rupa with my children to assert my rights to my father's property. I was given two acres of land and a house."
After the Karamoja disarmament exercise, a number of NGOs flooded the region, sidelining the elders and working primarily with the youth. However, in 2012, they were rediscovered. Martin Odong, an elder and catechist, says the identified elders were given two-week training in Kampala and Gulu to strengthen their capacity.
Modern forces meet traditional forces
"We were encouraged to participate in the fight against gender-based violence (GBV), HIV/AIDS, and female genital mutilation (FGM). FIDA Uganda trained us to handle non-capital offenses, which helps to bring immediate peace in the community. Vices, such as, GBV and courtship rape are now dying out."
FIDA Uganda, with sponsorship from UN Women, has held trainings for different stakeholders in the district, among themcultural leaders and community legal volunteers (CLV). Betty Acen, legal officer, FIDA Uganda Moroto office, says the CLVs identify cases of GBV and either handle them, report to the elders, or to FIDA. "We have 30 CLVs in Moroto and 44 in Kaabong. The cultural leaders form an informal justice system people believe in. We work with 30 cultural leaders in Moroto and 30 in Kaabong."
In 2013, the elders visited cultural leaders in Acholi region to learn good practices in preventing GBV, and came up with a book, The Karamojong Gender Principles, a union of cultural practices and the law.
Prevalence of GBV
According to Acen, GBV is high in Moroto. "I relate it to ignorance. People were not reporting cases because they were not aware beating a woman or FGM is a crime. FGM is practiced by the Tepeth clan, who take pride in it. In Kaabong, courtship rape used to be normal. If man did not rape you before he married you, his family would humiliate you. But with sensitization, people are now reporting these activities. Unfortunately, in Tapac, the Tepeth nowadays cross to Kenya or Amudat District to perform FGM."
Assistant Commissioner of Police, Richard Aruk Maruk, the North Moroto Regional Police Commander concurs with Acen that the high levels of domestic violence are fueled by alcoholism, poverty, and polygamy. "We have sensitized the public on the dangers of domestic violence but it is not easy to take a case to court. A couple may fight to the extent of causing deformity. The woman reports to police and the husband is arrested. While we are preparing a case of grievous bodily harm, the woman brings food for her husband.
The next morning, she returns to tell the officer that she wants her husband back or else she will commit suicide at the police station. This is a woman who is supposed to testify in court. What can you do?" Between May 1 and May 9, nine cases of domestic violence against women, three cases of economic violence against men, two defilement cases, and 15 cases of child neglect had been reported. Last month, there were 40 cases of domestic violence and child neglect, and since the year began six girls have been rescued from forced marriages in Amudat.
The challenges to getting justice
In its community policing, police teaches people that for a case to succeed in court, the input of the public is vital. "Some witnesses, however, give up because of prolonged cases," Maruk says, continuing, "If the crime was committed in 2012 you cannot expect the witness to remember everything they saw.
In Napak and Amudat, there are no courts. The distance from Amudat to Moroto is 180km and costs Shs200,000, so people give up. But, FIDA Uganda has helped us to transport witnesses to court." Also, according to Odong, gathering people in Karamoja to mediate a case requires funds. "If one is in the right, they can easily lose the case if they do not have money."
The elders have a Case Management Book in which they list cases of GBV and their causes. Charles Topoth, an elder, says after causes are identified, community dialogues are organised. "GBV cuts across all sectors, including land. In 2012, Karamoja was included in a World Bank project that identified the right of people to own land and Uganda was supposed to issue certificates of customary land ownership. However, the government excluded Karamoja from the process. We have sued the Attorney General, but in the meantime, the land rights of women are being trampled on," says Topoth.
Although there are formal land committees in every parish, Maruk believes the community handles land matters better than the police. "To handle land matters successfully, one has to involve clan leaders because they know the history of the land." In Loreeng village, as the day progress, the land grabber has not yet arrived. The women decide to walk to his home. They intend to curse him at his home.
Taking legal aid to the community
FIDA offers legal representation in court, mediation, follow-ups, and a mobile legal aid clinic to its clients. "Some people find it hard to come to our offices or to the police because of difficulties in transportation. Some cases have been dismissed by court because of lack of witnesses. For instance, one needs Shs80,000 to travel from Tapac to Moroto town. So, we take the office to the communities. We start by sensitizing, and then, we invite those with cases or who need legal advice. Last year, during the 16 Days of Activism against GBV, we invited the resident state attorney to a radio talk show and had a discussion about the importance of witnesses testifying in court," says Acen.
Since then, the number of witnesses willing to testify in GBV cases rose. FIDA Uganda also facilitated witnesses and lawyers to attend a special court session that handled a case backlog. Over 100 files were disposed of.
Police taking action
Assistant Commissioner of Police, Richard Aruk Maruk (pic), the North Moroto Regional Police Commander, says the advent of peace has made it easy for people to report cases of GBV, domestic violence, rape, and defilement. "Before, the victim feared to report the crime because perpetuators had guns. It was also not easy for the police to arrest armed people."
The number of cases reported is now going down because community policing has created an awareness of crime and how to prevent it. To boost police efforts, UN Women trained officers on how to approach the commTaking legal aid to the communityunity and counsel victims, donated motorcycles, stationary, cameras, printers, photocopying machines, and computers to help in data collection.
"The elders' council is not assisting us much because they prefer their traditional ways of handling cases to bringing them to police," Maruk says, continuing, "For instance, FGM has been a cultural aspect and not all leaders are against it. However, we have recruited open-minded elders who are our informers. They even tell us which families in Tapac have crossed the border for FGM. We also go across the border and talk to the Pokot about the dangers of FGM. We rescued students of Kalas Girls School in Amudat who were scheduled for FGM."