Social, electronic and local media across Uganda has been swamped with several accounts of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) disproportionately targeted against women and girls. This manifests in the forms of wife battering, denial of resources, rape, defilement, trafficking and sexual harassment.

Many are those cases that go unreported due to survivor’s fear of being ostracised by their families and communities. Prosecution of cases is frustrated by insufficient facilities to dispose of the many cases of SGBV on the shelf.
Statistics from the office of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) indicates that out of 1,594 new rape and 7,618 defilement cases reported in 2015 and 2016, only 57 per cent brought punishment to the perpetrators, yet such a deficiency in prosecution allows perpetrators to commit such crimes with impunity.

Cases of female-targeted killings are also on the rise in the country, especially in the central region. This situation calls for action to prevent and respond to violence against women.

Globally, one in every three women have experienced physical or sexual violence. The #MeToo campaign that went viral in 2017 as a hashtag used on social media and electronic media demonstrated the widespread prevalence of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA).

The campaign developed as a response to revelations about Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men using their positions to sexually harass and abuse women in the film industry, as well as other domains. It gave a platform to women and girls across the world to speak out about the various encounters of sexual exploitation and abuse they have experienced in public and private spaces and saying no to the silence.

The campaign spread with such rigour with, survivors sharing their stories and encouraging other survivors to speak out. The widespread attention to the campaign showed that SEA and SGBV does not segregate and knows no boundaries; doesn’t matter one’s colour, tribe, political affiliation or religion. It is a silent killer in most societies that often times does not allow the survivour to speak out.

The #MeToo campaign was also a self-reflecting moment for most women and girls that have either ignorantly or reluctantly kept silent about the various SEA and SGBV atrocities they have experienced. The campaign is one of the most recognised in the history of the fight against SGBV and SEA and was significant because breaking the silence is the first step in finding a solution to a case of SGBV and SEA.

Uganda’s well-crafted laws against SGBV lack proper implementation, with most of these laws remaining on paper rather than enforced. While the Constitution guarantees equality between women and men, to date, discrimination against women and girls persists in many areas.

These include direct or indirect reluctance in law enforcement, gender and sex stereotypes, as well as cultural norms. Some of the perpetrators of violence against women are renown politicians or businessmen whose power in society jeopardises all efforts to bring justice to the survivors.

Often, evidence against these perpetrators has been destroyed through bribing the institutions of justice and letting the perpetrators walk free in communities, or even, having the survivors killed.

The issue of women’s rights and empowerment is paramount if women and girls are to be protected from SGBV and SEA. Not only women’s rights are human rights, rather, women’s betterment has an intrinsic value; is it the right thing to do to treat women and men equally?

Indeed, progress for women is also imperative for economic development since violence against women includes economic deprivation as well. Looking beyond the privileged middle class citizenry, how many women and girls in grassroot communities have decent jobs besides those that can thrive on small income from agricultural products on a small scale? How many girls have a chance to be educated in the most remote communities and how many pregnant mothers have access to decent healthcare?

When it comes to work, women do three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men through the various domestic chores they do. What about property rights such as girl inheritance of land as their male counterparts? There is a need for all stakeholders to ponder on these issues and find lasting solutions to these pertaining issues.
To date, there are various misconceptions around women’s rights such that their agency is taking its toll on men, thus making them fail to perform their socially accustomed roles as heads of families. That men no longer feel like men in their households because women are more empowered. Yet in reality, women are still grappling with having their voices heard and included at all decision-making levels. Women still carry the burden of domestic chores, with most of them having the jobs to take care of their children. With such a challenge, women cannot perform up to their full potential in working life outside the domestic labour they are tied with at home, and as a result, will not be promoted quite often as their male counterparts.

There is need to undertake reforms that give women equal rights to economic resources, such as ownership and access to control of land, financial services and natural resources, as well political and social leadership. Beyond legal and policy changes, violence against women and girls can only end when societies challenge and condemn the norms and practices that propagate the act.
It also necessitates an understanding that respecting tradition and culture can be done without damaging the social, economic and physical integrity of women and girls.

Ms Atuhaire is a researcher, a women’s rights advocate.