Domestic Violence Tearing Families Apart in Uganda as Covid-19 Lockdown Bites

By Alex Pithua

GULU

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the world, women and girls are getting more vulnerable to domestic violence than ever. This is evident in the unprecedented rise in the cases of domestic violence globally.

Statistic from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) indicate that over the course of the covid-19 lockdown, domestic violence was already one of the most pervasive human rights violations-of which women were the majority of victims.  Some 243 million women and girls aged between 15 and 49 years have been subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner in the last 12 months. The UN has described the worldwide escalation in domestic violence as a “shadow pandemic” alongside covid-19.

In Uganda, according to statistics from police, a total of 13,693 cases of domestic violence were reported to police in just half a year compared to 13,916 reported in 2019, Aswa region had the highest number with 1,131 cases in 2019 followed by east and north Kyoga with 985 and 808 cases respectively. It is estimated that Gender-Based Violence (GBV) cases have increased by 20% during the lockdown as women and girls are physically trapped at home with their abusers. In this investigation we analyze how the country lockdown has led to the increasing cases of domestic violence in Acholi sub-region.

Structural Composition of GBV

Domestic violence is any behavior the purpose of which is to gain power and control over a spouse, partner, an intimate partner like a girl or boyfriend or family member. There are five forms of domestic violence including maltreatment of children for example child abuse and neglect; Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) which is a violence by a current or former spouse, boy or girlfriend; sexual violence like rape and harassment; suicide such as fatal and nonfatal suicide behavior and youth violence like bullying, gang or peer violence.During the covid-19 lockdown, the upsurge in domestic violence has sent shock waves across the country with Aswa region on top as per the police report.

Giving a hand to victims of domestic violence. 82 year old Lucy Anek who was battered by her Grandson with her care taker R. Photo by Willy Chowoo

“I thought I would not survive because of the permanent disability inflicted on me; my grandson would have killed me. He assaulted me over five times during which I sustained serious injuries and I nearly commited suicide. Fortunately, the grace of God landed me on good Samaritans whose helping hand gave me a second lease to life. Now I’m here talking and healthy”, Lucy Anek, an 82-year-old grandmother in Omoro district was brutally assaulted by her grandson in April. Her story went viral on social media and prompted authorities to take action while well-wishers built for her a new house.

Another victim of domestic violence is Abdala Farida, a 29-year-old resident of industrial area, west Division in Gulu city was assaulted by her brother-in-law on 9th July. In that incident she lost eight teeth. “I got hurt by my sisters’ husband and as I talk right now I’m getting treatment from a private health facility. During that assault 8 of my teeth got broken. I’m now feeding on water and juice only as recommended by the doctor and I can’t speak well because my throat is exhilaratingly painful”, Abdala narrates her ordeal.

Claudia Anzoa, a legal officer with FIDA Uganda, attributes the intensification of domestic violence to the prevailing economic distress and the endemic land disputes communities are grappling with. “There is a lot of economic frustration and apparently most perpetrators of violence have no prior record of violent tendencies. Hence it is primarily due to the bleak economic circumstances that people are committing acts of violence”.

The lockdown saw the closure of places of work and consequently many people were pushed out of employment. The informal sector, where the majority of people are employed and yet they literally survive on daily earnings and live hand-to-mouth, felt the greatest pinch.

“For instance if a spouse is unable to provide for the daily needs of his home like feeding because of the lockdown; the persistent financial inability, coupled with endless demands to meet domestic obligations will build-up tension in a home that will eventually blow into verbal and at worst, physical confrontation. The fact that domestic fights are becoming rampant is attributable to economic frustration”, Anzoa concludes.

She adds that land disputes have been aggravated by grievances over land demarcations.  “So you find families conflicting over land and fighting amongst themselves. The centrality of land to economic livelihoods has been the major cause of land-related conflicts and the violence thereto”, Anzoa links the disputes and violence among families to the significance of land as a factor of production.

Gulu district chairperson, Ojara Martine Mapenduzi, says they are overwhelmed with the number of domestic violence cases they receive on a daily basis. These cases are often referred to police because some of them are criminal in nature. “We are going through a difficult period as cases of domestic violence, especially GBV, are skyrocketing with many people running to our offices. We appeal to women and men to be very understanding during this period since everyone is affected. Some women who have been evicted from their homes and denied access to gardens and therefore sources food”, Ojara explains the plight of women amidst the covid-19 pandemic.

“A woman from Coo Pe who had a disagreement with her husband reported that the perpetrator had also blocked her from accessing the garden for food. There are so many cases we are dealing with. We have enlisted the intervention of other stakeholders while others have been referred to police” Ojara added that, “We are overwhelmed by the rates of domestic violence. Given the complexity of the cases we liaise with many stakeholders. Indeed, these working partnerships have paid-off handsomely by enabling us to employ tap into different approaches of conflict resolution including mediation, arbitration and litigation”.

“According to the police report, we have registered 100 cases of domestic violence in the month of June alone”, Jimmy Patrick Okema, the Aswa river region police spokesperson confirmed the rise in domestic in the region.

 How Covid-19 Has Heightened Pre-Existing Conditions

“It is true we are receiving cases of GBV which are attributed to a range of factors. Some of these matters are due to land wrangles while others are failure by husbands to provide food for their families. Spousal mistrust in relation to the use of mobile phones and perceived infidelity in marriage is yet another aggravating factor for domestic violence”.

Even before the lockdown, mobile phones have been a major cause of misgiving among spouses. Now that couples spend more time together amidst the lockdown, there has been a corresponding rise in domestic conflicts and the consequent violence.

Survivor of Domestic Violence Ms Lucy Anek 82 with Humanity Gulu Chairman Hon Ojara M Mapenduzi

“The most common cause of suspicion is when the husband, for instance, runs outside to answer a call-this brings suspension to the wife. However, we handle the criminal aspect other than the civil” Okema clarified on the role of the police in resolving domestic disputes”.

Anzoa notes say out of  63 cases that FIDA has registered during the lock down, 80% have been handled through mediation. Rather uncommon 3 cases reported were men tormented by women.

“We have undertaken a client-centered approach that examines the specific circumstances of the client and makes customized remedies. when a wife reports her husband on allegations of battering the first remedy we propose is mediation that brings on board family members and friends”.

She adds that you cannot push for court or police when the complainant prefers a more amicable way of solving a problem at hand. As a result, most of the cases reported have been handle through mediation.

To mitigate the constraints of movement a structure of community legal volunteers has been instituted. these volunteers are selected from different communities in Gulu and they sensitize people about the law and advocate for peaceful resolution of disputes. So very few cases have been referred to police”, Anzoa points out the advantages of arbitration and mediation in resolving conflicts.

On most cases domestic violence culminates in child-headed families. At worst some of these cases result in death. Douglas Peter Okao, the Omoro district Chairperson said they have registered one death due to such incidence during the lockdown period.

 Ignorance of The Law as a Causal Factor

“We registered one death in Odek sub-county, Omoro district, where a husband murdered a wife and he is remanded at Gulu central prison”. Stella Kijange, a lawyer, attributes domestic violence to ignorance of the law.

“The underlying cause is ignorance of the law. Secondly people are not willing to speak out against domestic violence. Few men understand that beating a woman or any family member amounts to domestic violence and if found guilty one is sentenced to two years imprisonment.

“Unfortunately people don’t follow-up on the cases they report to police. The justice system is like the digestive system in which the police acts as the mouth that receives complaints. If not pushed to the stomach the case dies.” Kijange recommends that communities should be sensitized on the disadvantages of domestic violence.

This goes back to continuous capacity building to all the leaders. “most Local Council (LC) officials don’t know that their role is paramount to the administration of justice in their communities. So lawyers or humanitarian workers should embark on building the capacity of local leaders in sensitizing communities about their rights whilst adjudicating cases”.

Omoro LCV Okello Douglas Peter Okao said they are soon starting community sensitization on domestic violence and GBV in particular in order to curb the inter-twinned vices. “Our position as the district is training the community on domestic violence, GBV and the general values of human rights. With the acute rise in domestic violence, there is need to intensify community policing right from the household level”.

Alex Pithua is a youth journalist based in Gulu. Email; pithuaalex@gmail.com