APRIL 12, 2010: Will New Law Make Any Difference for Women?

Will New Law Make Any Difference for Women?
SOURCE: New Vision

By Frederick Womakuyu

Kampala — On March 17, 2010, President Yoweri Museveni signed the Domestic Violence Act of 2009 into law. The law is to punish perpetrators of domestic violence. It specifically penalises a partner in a domestic relationship who injures or endangers the health of the other. It also forbids repeated sending of abusive messages and letters to someone.

Law was long overdue

Mubarak Mabuya, the programme component manager gender at the Ministry of Gender, says in Uganda, domestic violence is rampant. According to the 2006 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (UDHS), 70% of women between 15-49 years of age have suffered some form of physical violence. He says physical violence occurs at a high rate in Busoga region, eastern Uganda, where two out of three people say they have been physically abused.

He adds that the survey indicates that 25% (one in four) women between the ages of 19 and 49 had their first sexual experience against their will.

According to the new law, the cases of death in Uganda, resulting from domestic violence rose from 137 in 2008 to 165 in 2009.

What difference will it make?

Evelyn Letiyo, the senior programme officer, Raising Voices, says: "This law seeks to give justice and protection to victims of domestic violence like the women, children and domestic workers.".

Mabuya adds that the new law will also help the vulnerable in the villages because justice begins from the LC1 court. According to the law, the local councils (LCs) can try cases of domestic violence with an aim of initiating reconciliation.

Rita Achiro, the executive director of Uganda Women's Network, says the LCs are accessible to villagers, unlike the Police, so everybody will access justice.

"The Police does not reach out to everybody. They may have problems of lack of fuel or transport. The LCs are everywhere," Achiro explains.

Rebecca Kadaga, the deputy speaker of Parliament, says: "Now that the state has put a law, saying it is a criminal offence, they will handle it. As women, we have been fighting to protect ourselves for long." She says they started campaigning for the law in 2007.

"This is an achievement for women as well as the men who love the good health of their women," Kadaga adds.

Tabitha Nabulobi, a peasant woman from Kapchorwa district in eastern Uganda, who has suffered domestic violence which harmed her health, says: "My husband used to beat me almost everyday, even when I had done nothing. I developed a hearing impairment. I am weak and a few days ago, I went to the health centre and they told me that I have lost a lot of blood due to the beatings. I support the law because it will prevent men from beating us," she says.

Jennifer Nandudu, 18, a student at Bulucheke Secondary School, says as women, this is what they have been fighting for.

"It will help to imprison those husbands that commit domestic violence in the name of discipline. It will deal with beatings arising from marital rape. This is because some men beat up their wives when they deny them sex," Nandudu says.

The perpetrators of domestic violence are liable to a fine of up to sh960,000 or imprisonment of up to two years, or both, according to the law.

The court may, in addition to imposing a fine of imprisonment, order the offender to pay compensation to the victim of any amount determined by the court.

Flora Omike, a woman in Lira, northern Uganda, says the law will serve as a prevention mechanism, as well as legal support for compensation. "If a man or woman who is a perpetrator of domestic violence knows that there is a law in place against domestic violence, he or she will avoid violence. However, if the violence occurs, the victim will report the case immediately to courts of law and get claim for compensation for health hazards or harm done to the body," she adds.

Rev. Frederick Lirra Nangai of Chesower Church of Uganda, Bukwo district, eastern Uganda, says the new law is of great value.

"There is a lot of domestic violence in our village - almost 95% of the people, especially women, are beaten and abused and yet there was no specific law to address it. Domestic violence has brought poverty because victims become incapacitated and cannot work," Rev Nangai says.

Nangai adds that domestic violence has also increased family break-ups and divorce. He says many women who are victims abandon their homes.

Loopholes in the new law

Some experts also argue that the law may not make much difference. Turner Atuki, the executive director of Mifumi, an NGO advocating for women's rights in Uganda, says it is a step forward in the right direction. "But unless it is implemented, it may mean nothing because the Bill was watered down. The role of the Police was not strengthened."

Atuki says the law does not order the Police to intervene when there is domestic violence. "Instead, it is upon the victim to report or not to report the case. In case the victim does not report the case, it means he or she will continue suffering violence," she explains.

She also says the LCs have been given more power than the Police. "The law requires the victim to first report to the LCs and they reconcile the parties. If someone is assaulted or beaten for the second time, the person then reports to the Police. LCs only address civil issues, not criminal. The domestic violence case may be criminal and yet the LCs do not have powers to address this," she says.

However, Achiro says although the LCs have powers to try domestic violence, they try only civil cases and forward the criminal ones to the Police. She adds that the victim does not necessarily need to report the case to the Police himself or herself.

"It can be a relative, neighbour or anybody," she says. Kadaga says women may find it hard to report their husbands due to stigma from society. "The woman may receive pressure from the relatives or neighbours not to report the husband. This will be a difficult thing for most women because they may fear that they will be divorced. However, by reporting, they will help themselves," she says.

Mubarak says the 2006 UDHS report shows that only 12% of domestic violence cases were reported to the Police, with over 88% of the cases unreported.

Nabulobi says in the village where she lives, the LCs are easily compromised. "Some of the perpetrators are LC officials and others have relatives or friends who are Lc members. We want the Police to handle all the cases so that there is some form of transparency," she says.

The law also says a person who repeatedly makes abusive calls or causes another person to make abusive calls to a victim, commits an offence.

However, Nanduttu says the law is vague here, adding: "What if someone uses somebody else's phone to send abusive messages without their knowledge? Will the law punish the owner of the phone? What about a case wher someone's name is used illegally to send bad messages?"

Making the law fair

Atuki says the issue should be a criminal offence handled only by the Police. The LCs can help by arresting the culprits, but they should not decide cases.

She cites South Africa and Mozambique where the offence was criminalised and the police were given powers to intervene in domestic violence and not wait for the victim to report.

Mabuya says there should be training of all the stakeholders involved in addressing the vice so that each one of them knows their roles.

"The LCs and the Police should know what they are supposed to do. The people should be educated and sensitised to know what constitutes domestic violence and what is in the law," he says.

Brenda Malinga, the national programme officer for gender at the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), calls upon all stakeholders to support the implementation of the new law.

"Putting it on paper is a good step in the right direction. We need to support the implementation of the law without fear or favour. We should give the Police enough money for investigations, fuel or vehicles for transport," she says.