On a dreary Monday afternoon, I sit on an uncomfortable wooden bench filing a police report for stolen property when a lady walks into the police station with her two toddlers whilst carrying her baby in a swaddle. It would not be a particularly memorable event save for the fact that this woman bears visible signs of physical harm; her right arm is in a cast, her cheeks bear dark red-like marks and her left eye is swollen shut. She narrates to a police officer the tale of how her husband constantly abuses both her and her children physically and emotionally. When asked what brings on these bouts of aggression, she answers rather sadly, “Omusajja teyetagga nsonga’’ (A man does not need a reason).
Following the registration of Uganda’s first COVID-19 case in March this year, the proverbial Pandora’s Box was opened and to-date the effects of the pandemic are still raging nationwide. In the interest of public health, the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni──through a series of public addresses ──issued a number of guidelines to curb the spread of the virus, chief among which was the lockdown or #StayAtHome campaign. Whereas this was well intended and in the interest of public health, it created an avenue for the exacerbation of one of Uganda’s longest standing human rights violations, that is, Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV).
Reports show that there has been a significant spike in the number of cases of SGBV in Uganda since the imposition of the lockdown. The Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (MoGLSD) reports that between March and April 2020, 3280 cases of gender based violence had been recorded by the Uganda government and some 283 cases recorded violence against children. Women and girls make up the largest percentage of people prone to being victims of SGBV. This is especially in the rural areas of Uganda which are permeated by high levels of illiteracy and entrenched in the toxic patriarchal social system. These acts of violence have in fact proved fatal in many circumstances.
Statistics from Hoima Police Station alone indicate that in the first half of this year, 595 murders were registered in their region out of which 10 were a result of domestic violence. The figures also indicate that 67 cases of gender-based violence were recorded in Hoima district during the Covid-19 lockdown period. One account, aired on a local television station, tells a horrific story of a woman from Kabalagala whose head was hit by her husband when she asked for money for food.
This current trend of events is not only worrisome but a call for urgent action on the part of the Government of Uganda, its organs and its agencies to protect the rights of women and girls as per their constitutional mandate. The right to respect for human dignity and protection from inhuman treatment and the right to life are part of the Bill of Rights under the Constitution to which every Ugandan citizen is equally entitled to. This means that every person is entitled to the protection of the law from acts of violence of any kind which constitute a risk to her life and general well-being and has the right to report any perpetrators to the law enforcement agencies.
There is a corresponding need to provide women and girls who have been victims of SGBV with adequate facilities such as shelter, medical care and psychological rehabilitation if they are to have any hope for the future.
Finally, it is quite futile to take measures to ensure people are not affected by the Corona virus yet these very measures are putting women and girls at high risk of serious injury or even death. It can be likened to pouring water in a cup with a gaping hole at the bottom. Pandemic response ought to be holistic and consider all categories of persons at risk in its approach.
Women’s Probono Initiative