KAMPALA – Ms Esther Nafula was relaxing at home in her small grass thatched house in Bufukhula village in Bulambuli district July 2020 when she heard a knock on the door.
The 38 year-old mother of four had been married for close to eighteen years and was looking forward to starting life as a grandmother.
Upon opening the door, she came face to face with her husband and without waiting to be asked in, he pushed her roughly inside the house and grabbed her by the neck, demanding that she leaves his home or starts buying food at their home.
“He kicked me, punched and shoved me to the floor in a fit of rage. When I realised that he would batter me to death if I resisted or screamed, I lay quiet on the floor, gritting my teeth to keep myself from screaming,” the mother of four recalls.
“I have never recovered full use of my ears and some of the scars you see me having today are part of the battering I went through at my marital home during the first lock down of the country due to Covid-19,” she explains.
Even when I made an alarm later, no neighbour came to my rescue, they regarded this as a family affair.
“I walked out of my marriage and moved on amidst talk from my parents that it was against their culture and today I thank God that I am staying alone and nobody beats me and I believe that I would have suffered even more serious injuries, or possibly even died, had I continued staying in marriage with my husband,” added Ms Nabafu.
Stories of horrific scenes that take place in homes around in Uganda are also among the educated, eloquent and articulate graduates with stable careers, an indication that gender-based violence (GBV) affects the learned just as much as it affects the illiterate.
And Nafula’s story is one that reveals that most girls and women are suffering during the Covid 19 lockdowns and will have a story – from being objectified and harassed, to being raped or forced to marry as a child.
This is due to the fact that lock downs have kept men at home, close to their families, they have nothing to do, and so they are now involved in inflicting harm and abuse to women, just because they have failed to provide for the families.
Ms Christine Namwawu, the district Community Development Officer says the situation is further exacerbated by the community perception of GBV cases as a family affair hence rape, defilement and physical domestic violence cases are passing without notice thus additionally disadvantaging the women and the girl children, just because they are born female.
She revealed that it was unfortunate that many women and girls experiencing violence never get a chance to report their cases due to intimidation or coercion, shame, poor treatment expectations and realities, lack of access to reporting mechanisms more so during this Covid 19 lock down.
“So like Nafula, most women have deserted their marriages but are still in pain and are psychologically tortured and traumatised,” said Ms Namwawu.
Ms Annet Nandudu, the LCV chairperson for Bulambuli district says that the restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have made it harder for survivors of gender violence to report abuse and seek help and for service providers to respond efficiently.
She revealed that Nafula is not alone but that there is wide spread sexual and other forms of violence against women with devastating consequences including injuries and serious physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems on women across the district.
“Violence is a daily reality for women and girls across Bulambuli and Bugisu sub-region as a whole and this has escalated during the Covid 19 lock downs,” said Ms Nandudu.
The Bulambuli District Health Officer, Dr Vincent Natega acknowledged the challenge posed by Covid 19 lockdowns on GBV but added “records at several health Centres reveal many women and teenagers have visited them for treatment after GBV in their homes,”
The incidence of GBV in Uganda during Covid 19
Maj. Gen. Sabiiti Muzeeyi while speaking at the UNFPA training for Uganda Police Force and their families on gender-based violence and sexual reproductive health and rights September 2020, noted that gender-based violence remains one of the most notable human rights violations within the community that needs to be tackled with the seriousness and focus it deserves.
He revealed that according to the Uganda Police Crime Report, 7.2 percent (15,638 cases) of all crimes reported in 2019 were sex related.
Maj Gen Sabiiti explained that the COVID-19 Pandemic has not helped in getting the situation any better and that by mid-year Uganda Police Crime Report (January – June, 2020) showed that on average, a total of 2,707 cases of sexual and gender-based violence were reported to police every month.
Ms Grace Akullo, the director of criminal investigations while speaking at the release of Annual Crime and Traffic Safety Report 2020, said Domestic violence was registered as the third most committed crime with 17,664 cases in 2020.
Ms Akullo said the sex-related offence increased in 2020 to 17,144 cases from 15,638 cases in 2019 because many school-going children were studying at home and they were taken advantage of by sex predators.
“GBV is a serious human rights violation that affects many women in Uganda and for each of these individuals, domestic violence – physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or psychological abuse against an intimate partner – and I think this is the underlying cause of distress in women today amidst Covid 19,” said Ms Akullo.
The 2019/20 Uganda National Household Survey (UNHS) also confirms that the incidence of child labour has increased during Covid-19 from 21 % to 36% and that reports of rape and sexual violence increased among women and girls in Uganda increased.
A research paper; Nam-aidsmap by Mariah Wilberg on Sexual violence against women and girls in Uganda increased during the COVID-19 pandemic dated 18 July 2021, says in six months before COVID-19, 593 girls under the age of 18 reported sexual violence compared to 860 girls in six months during COVID-19.
The paper adds that the odds of reporting sexual violence were 1.3 times higher (CI 95%, 1.12-1.51) during COVID-19 compared to the preceding six months. There was also a 17% increase in reported teen pregnancy during the pandemic; however, this was not statistically significant.
Prof Grace Bantebya, head of school of women and gender studies at Makerere University said women and girls across the country experience brutal acts like rape, sexual harassment, sustained injuries from domestic violence, abusive relationships.
She explained that GBV is a human rights issue and that more needs to be done beyond adoption of legal and policy frameworks, government needs to allocate more funds and step up efforts to protect women and girls against the evils of GBV in Covid 19 era.
Ms Irene Ovonji Odida, the chief executive officer of the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers [FIDA], said GBV has been described as the most common human rights violation that both reflects and reinforces inequalities between women and men.
Dr Dinah Nakiganda the head of Adolescent health and school health at the ministry of health said Violence against women and girls is one of the most prevalent human rights violations during the Covid 10 lockdown.
Dr Nakiganda was presenting a paper at the World Population Day Media E-Chat on 15 July by Zoom titled; National efforts to promote and achieve universal access to SRHR for adolescents and young people amid COVID-19.
She said GBV undermines the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims, yet it remains shrouded in a culture of silence and that the victims of violence can suffer sexual and reproductive health consequences, including forced and unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions and even death.
Mr António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General while speaking on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women November 25, 2020 said violence against women and girls is a global human rights challenge.
He explained that COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed this issue as a global emergency requiring urgent action at all levels, in all spaces and by all people and that the social and economic fallout from the pandemic is disproportionately pushing women and girls into poverty, and the risk of violence against them is rising.
He said the global community needs to hear the voices and experiences of women and girls and take into account their needs, especially survivors and those who face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.
“We must also prioritize women’s leadership in finding solutions and engage men in the struggle, I urge the international community to work to end the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence once and for all,” said Mr Guterres.
Ms Beatrice Chelangat, the executive director of Reproductive Education and Community Health. An NGO that fights Female Genital Mutilation [FGM] and GBV, says Covid-19 and the lockdown could erode the progress made in protecting and safeguarding women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence.
Ms Chelangat, a woman activist says given the invisible nature of some forms of GBV, it is hard for communities to fully respond to the abuses at household level unless the survivors have built trust in the community support mechanisms.
She explained that Uganda is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women, ratified to the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2011, the Beijing Platform of Action and committed to attaining the fifth sustainable development goal of promoting gender equality.
“And the women of Uganda deserve protection from violence and access to justice even under the current situation of lockdown amidst the COVID 19 crisis,” said Chelangat.
He urged the government to come up with policies to include essential services to address violence against women and girls in preparedness and response plans for COVID-19, fund them and identify accessibility measures.
Call to the government
The activists are calling for flexible and adaptive gender-based violence services to be prioritised during pandemics, especially during lockdowns.
For public awareness campaigns to highlight the risk and give detailed information on how victims, including those infected with COVID-19, can access services.
To treat services for women who experience violence as essential, ensure these services have the resources they need, and make alternative accommodation available when the current limited shelters are full.
Start conversations about gender roles early on, and challenge the traditional features and characteristics assigned to men and women.