By Mpho Elizabeth Mpofu 

 

I wanted to understand gender-based violence (GBV) in Katakwi.  For the longest time, it felt like we – the team from ActionAid who were working to improve standards of living by strengthening social justice – were addressing the symptoms, but not the causes.  I had been involved in many cases, yet no clear change had become visible. I wondered: Was our work impactful? Were we making a difference, or were we becoming a contributing factor to the high rates of GBV?

A woman had come to my office battered, shaken, and disturbed.  She was not in a state to tell her story at first, so we offered her a shower, food, and a bed to sleep in and calm down.  Hours later, she was up and vastly calmer, which allowed her to explain her ordeal. Her alcoholic husband was violently beating her and her two children; she needed help creating a case against him of GBV.  We called the police, opened a case against the man, and kept the woman in our center for two days. Upon her return home, her family challenged her decision by asking her why she wanted to take away the children’s father.  They told her that he was disciplining her for her wrongdoings, asked her: “Do you not know that your husband did that out of love?”

Consequently, she questioned her decision under the influence of her familial culture.  Ultimately, she withdrew the charges against her husband. It was all rosy when she went back home until the day she asked for school fees and money for food. The good-for-nothing drunkard was infuriated by this request.  He beat his wife to death, burnt her body, and dumped her body in a nearby swamp.

This woman gave in to cultural pressure that told her a dangerous man was not dangerous as much as he was doting.  Her return to an abusive partner marked the end of her life. I shouldn’t have allowed her to withdraw the charges, but what authority did l have to stop her? When the police came to inform us of her death, l was angry with myself, with the team.  We had failed this woman and l blamed myself for her death. This was what saw me immerse myself in the community of Katakwi. I needed to understand GBV in order to safeguard the lives of the girls and women.

Katakwi was hard hit by insurgencies during the days of Joseph Kony and the Karamojong raids, making it a poverty-ravaged district where people were largely downtrodden, many of whom having spent months or years in resettlement camps.  Economic instability was a major cause of many domestic violence cases, and women were violently beaten for not providing food for their husbands. Women are the most adversely affected by this overwhelming poverty, as they do not own anything that is their own, making them financially dependent on their spouses.  Something as reasonable as asking for money for the family could end in hospitalization, or worse… burnt and dumped in one of the many swamps.  

Economic instability is deeply linked to the cultural devaluation of women.  This culture prevents women from owning any assets, and in actual fact, women are counted as property in a man’s household.  Polygamy is pervasive due to the belief that if a man has more than one wife, he would be a powerful man. Unsurprisingly, these standards are not the same for women.  Women are prevented from owning land; they have access but had no control over it. They are not entitled to inherit their husband’s assets, but, instead, are married off to their deceased husband’s older or younger brother in order to become the custodian of the property.  Regardless of economic status or education, culture humbles these women. One police woman was a witness to her acquired land with the husband as the sole owner regardless of who had purchased the property. She had worked hard and bought land but because of culture she could not own it she could only be a witness and have access to it.

Child marriages are also a contributing factor to the high rates of GBV.  This is part of the common belief that girls should not go to school. Educating a girl child means benefiting her future in-laws, rather than the boys who are seen as heirs and pillars of the family.  With no education and no economic income, these young girls are reduced to mere chattel and punching bags for their husbands. They are not able to defend themselves or stand up for their rights. This problem is compounded for child brides, who frequently report abuse in the home but cannot even run away, as their families would simply return them to their abusive husband.  For girls in such a situation, there is no such thing as home – not from where they came, and not from where they have been placed through marriage. 

Lastly, women do not have the understanding or ability to advocate for their sexual and reproductive health and rights.  There is no cultural understanding that people have ownership of their own bodies, and so female attempts to defend their bodily autonomy often ends in GBV.  Domestically, men determine when to have sex, how many children they plan to have, and whether or not to undertake family planning or use contraception. To defy this is to be seen as an invitation for ‘discipline’.

l have been convinced for some time that we have been addressing the symptoms and not the root causes in our work to end GBV.  The attempt to redress individual cases of GBV rather than overarching community attitudes is why interventions have not, thus far, been as impactful as l had hoped.  We have to change our ways of doing things; instead of managing cases of GBV in the context of economic disputes, we have to empower women to be economically independent.  Instead of massaging culture and the egos of traditional leaders, we have to interrogate how to progress norms and practices towards a culturally diverse Katakwi. I can only hope that this would lead to a lot of programmatic changes, not just for ActionAid, but for other civil society organisations addressing women’s rights in the area.  And we must do it for the unnamed women who have died at the hands of their partners, and their daughters and sons who will perpetuate the same sorry cycle into another generation if we do not act now.