Uganda is an East African country, bordered by Tanzania and Kenya, and is home to nearly 36 million people. Uganda is notorious for its human rights abuses and military dictactorships, dating back to the 1970s. Furthermore, gender equality and women's rights in Uganda remains a persistent problem today. During my time in Uganda a year ago, I witnessed this first hand while taking the time to meet and listen to some of Uganda's strongest survivors. In this post, we're addressing sexual violence in Uganda and how one organization in Iganga, Uganda-Girly Network-is working to decrease stigma and encouraging survivors to share their stories. Let's meet Bush, a Communication Practitioner and volunteer with Girly Network. In this Q&A, Bush and I discuss his role as a "feminist", the prevalence of sexual violence in Uganda, and how readers (near and far) can take action to help.
Q: Tell us more about Girly Network, and how and why did you get involved?
A: Girls Like You Network (GIRLY) is a youth-led network in Uganda, empowering victims of gender based violence, with much emphasis on sexual violence, to speak up, allow healing and counseling. Our team is made of girls and boys, men and women, some who are survivors of sexual violence while others are passionate and committed to advocate for gender equality in the country.
My first contact with Girly Network was when I first moved to work in Iganga with Straight Talk Foundation (STF), a pioneer of adolescent sexual and reproductive health in Uganda. Life in a new town seemed boring and very plain as compared to Entebbe and Kampala, the capital of Uganda, where I previously lived and worked respectively. Immediately, I thought about what can unite youths in one place to share inner details of life other than the usual European football league and partying. This is how the Nile Poetry Club started. At the start, it was not about sexual violence, even if there could have been a vague awareness about its occurrence. May be some members would have an idea, may be as we interact something might just click. It was always just meet, and see what happens.
We were all pulled together by our common love for poetry, that is when members shared very touching, often emotional stories and that’s how the connection grew. We saw a need. The real spark that led to the formation of girly Network was the rape of a 14 year old girl named "Tina" (not real name) in Iganga District. That evening is still fresh in my mind, as we gathered to partake of our daily dose of poetry, one member confronted us with a story of this innocent girl and members present resolved to follow it up and help her get justice, and importantly, healing in every possible way. This is how I got involved, in the midst of a local poetry club meeting- Nile Poetry. The stories carried deeper meaning, it provoked us into action. I realized that through poetry, we could face our pain and find our voices especially of people like Tina. The conversation was a channel for change because, each individual story shared through poetry, became our story. I strongly got involved because I believe, that if change is to be made in society, it had to be led by women. So I joined phenomenal women, like Ritah Namutumba, who had birthed the idea of Girly to me way before this spark had occurred.
GIRLY Network has a mission to provide tailor-made psycho-social support for all victims/survivors of Gender Based Violence, allowing healing and personal growth. We want to create a society where individuals can live dignified lives free from all forms of Gender based violence and reach their full potential.
Q: Through your work with Girly Network, would you consider yourself a “feminist”? Why or why not?
A: May be long before I started working. As a young boy, I cared too much and got anxious if my mother was not fine. This feeling grew into my life through high school and University. I remember during my literature classes, I often cared and took up female characters and defended their actions during discussions. I was for Viola in Twelfth Night, Oliver Twist’s Mother in Oliver Twist and Flo, the wife of Apire in Fate of the Banished by Julius Ocwinyo. I do consider myself a feminist. Having been brought by largely strong women, in a family led by women, I have no doubt that this shaped and drew me closer to issues that affect or can lift a woman. My earlier experience taught me that every woman should be able to use her voice and pursue her potential. I would definitely not be where I am if it were not for my grandmother, single mother, and aunties who did everything to give me a good education. I am a feminist, because I believe that women and men should and can work together to break barriers and end biases that hold women back.
Q: As a man, have you taken steps to get other men involved with Girly Network? What were some of the responses?
A: My passion for lifting women is almost natural, notwithstanding existing challenges, I have mobilized fellow men and boys to join hands in campaigns and walks around Iganga town creating awareness about SGBV (Sexual and Gender Based Violence).
I have taken great pride and joy in having table talks with men and boys about SGBV. Of course, there is still some resistance and unease to talk about the power imbalance and this only conforms the notion that men are just not yet ready to give up a system that puts women on the margin and keeps them on top.
Through the Guys Like You (GULY) project, we have been able to target young men- in school boys and out of school- between ages 10-24 for mentorship and sessions on gender, focusing on proper male behavior. This is done by male role models and coaches from various walks of life. The major objective of GULY is to, with the aim of helping the boys, unlearn what they previously thought was the best way to deal with females. The male culture of dominance is broken by talking to the future generation. I have realized that the greatest challenge in solving violence of any nature, is how to bring about a revolution of the heart.
Q: What is sexual violence? What is the difference between sexual violence and sexual harassment?
A: Sexual Violence refers to any sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act by violence or coercion, acts to traffic a person or acts directed against a person's sexuality, regardless of the relationship to the victim. These include, but not limited to: sexual assault (rape), child sexual abuse (defilement), and intimate partner sexual violence (spousal rape).
Sexual harassment includes using false promise such as chapatti or money, insistent pressure, abusive comments or reputational threats to coerce sex acts. It can encompass non-contact acts like catcalls and whistles, which can make girls/ women feel objectified and victimized. It includes nonconsensual electronic sharing of explicit images, exposure of genitals and surreptitious viewing of others naked or during sex.
Sexual Harassment is any form of unwelcome sexual behavior that’s offensive, humiliating or intimidating. It can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general, which is very common in Iganga town. This is majorly perpetrated by boda-boda cyclists, construction/site workers fond of insulting and hurling insults at women.
Q: How prevalent is sexual violence and assault in Uganda?
A: The prevalence of sexual gender based violence in Uganda is worryingly high. Sexual violence and harassment happens to women and also men who often do not report due to the culture of “men should always win”. I have witnessed horrific things right in the small town I live. Along the streets, in the market, and heard of tales at school that brought me to near tears.
In Uganda, it does not surprise my sisters that a boda-boda cyclist will hurl vulgar words at women and girls say 10 times a day. It has occurred to me walking with a female friend. Words came flying from all corners asking what I had not ‘done’ with things shimmering next to me. I felt like ripping off my male face but also understood what lay ahead. That the real revolution has to happen in the hearts of these men behaving like they did not have sisters, like they weren't born by a woman.
Statistically, the 2016 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (UDHS) revealed that up to 22% of women aged 15 to 49 in the country had experienced some form of sexual violence. The report also revealed that annually, 13% of women aged 15 to 49 experienced sexual violence. This translates to more than 1 million women exposed to sexual violence every year.
Therefore, using UDHS for 2011 and 2016, the trends show that the magnitude of and sexual violence increase with age but decline with education attainment and improve with wealth for both men and women. Observations also reveal that sexual violence is higher among the women despite the reported experiences declining over time.
Furthermore, current husband/wife/partner were found to be the leading perpetrators of both physical and sexual violence.
Q: What are the health consequences of violence against women and girls?
A: Anything that affects women, affects progress. This is so, because women are the engine of human progress. Anything that is against 52% of human population will certainly peddle us backwards.
I have witnessed first-hand, the devastating effects of violence against women. I am originally from Northern Uganda, a region still struggling to come out of about 2 decades of civil war led by LRA Leader Joseph Kony. I saw girls being raped, their cries still vivid in my ears. I saw women, mothers being forced into sex and later maimed. They were left for dead or dead.
This is an unforgettable part of my life. Violence against women leads to serious mental health diseases. Furthermore, violence means consent is negated, and therefore a window for unsafe sex which leads to increased chances of transmitting HIV/AIDS and other STD’s, hence escalating HIV and STD infections. Many girls and women violated, end up pregnant or in abusive and forceful marriages leading to unsafe abortions, fistula, and many other health challenges.
On a broader perspective, annually, Uganda loses Shs 77.5bn in profits and expenses related to GBV (gender based violence); sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy are leading contributors to vulnerability accounting for more than half of all reasons for girls dropping out of school in Uganda. (UDHS, 2016).
As result, families are broken, and so will social fabric of society. This breeds all kinds of social vices like poor health seeking behavior, poor service delivery in health facilities, as well as gender budgeting, where women and girls do not get a fair share of finances that go towards their needs.
Therefore, violence against women and girls leaves long-lasting physical and emotional scars and hinders ability of individuals to participate fully in their families and communities – economically, politically, and socially.
Q: How are victims of sexual violence supported in Uganda? What is Girly Network doing to reach survivors?
A: There are a number of interventions and processes put in place by the Ugandan government. There is the National Response strategy, which stipulates what is done at various stages and situations. The police have an ill-equipped department, called the Child and Family Protection Unit, which is mandated to handle all case related to sexual violence and the broader SGBV issues.
At the district, there is a probation officer who handles issues related to SGBV. Whereas effort has been shown and structures put in place to respond the sexual violence, their actual output remains ineffective due to meagre budget and technical capacity to carry out duty. For instance, I have seen cases reported being thrown out due to lack of or poor follow up and inability to collect forensics due to lack of supplies. The most frustrating is when you can see a young girl has been visibly raped, but police ineptness to conduct timely medical examination reduces chances for justice to prevail.
As GIRLY Network, we conduct Psychotherapy in various forms to include counseling services for adults and children as a form of intervention. This includes mutual support group therapies, crisis telephone counseling, and individual counseling.
The organization has been able to identify girls and women who have been violated and empowered them to speak up and seek help and support.
This includes medical care, PEP treatment, and emergency contraception among others. In brief, GIRLY has been able to work within the government approved frameworks of sexual and gender based violence.
Q: What has Girly Network achieved so far in addressing violence against women in Uganda?
A: The first ever sexual violence campaign in Iganga town was done by GIRLY Network to create awareness and sensitization attracting over 20 CSO’s and 1000 people in a short time. The campaign was dubbed #ThisIsAnOrange ( https://bit.ly/2lRQ14n ) with 61.5k views worldwide! This is an orange because of the horror that befell Tina, whose story was the spark for Girly force to form a network.
Several sensitization campaigns against sexual violence within the communities and schools have been conducted through mentorship programs, music, dance, drama, poetry, peaceful walks, and workshops. The most recent event being the Koona Mu Ngato Na SRH to create awareness with in school youths.
Q: How is Girly Network reaching out to men to address sexual violence in Uganda?
A: We live in a community where the culture of dominance is entrenched by gender and cultural beliefs. Most of the household income is controlled by a man. This already places the women at a disadvantage as they toil to run their households, breeding conflict and violence. Culturally, men are brought up NOT to be the ones who want to shed tears, to be strong, superior, dominant, and can return home any time of the night. This has made it extremely challenging to involve men in an ‘uncomfortable conversation’. Women are brought up to be submissive and easy to love by listening to men to increase chances of finding a marital partner, to know and be great cook, and impeccably clean. But not even these huge contrast could put off Girly Network from doing something to reach out to these men and the future fathers.
Most discussions and conversations with men about sexual violence turn to a contest of who can argue most. Men take on the defensive, because most of what is said is directed towards them as perpetrators. I think we need to think of better ways to create this conversation. The time to reimagine and reshape this conversation is here. It must be transformative. Seek to help men understand broader issues in sexual violence to allow for a progressive discourse about sexual violence.
The biggest challenge has been finding a voice with a moral force. Girly is working with cultural and religious leaders, most of whom are men, to create awareness and conversations about sexual violence. When men hear it from their own, and especially elders, then they can accept change.
Q: How is the Ugandan government working to eliminate this country-wide issue, if at all?
A: Parliament of Uganda passed numerous laws to protect the rights and interests of women and girls – including the Domestic Violence Act 2010, Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, and Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act,
At school levels (i.e. primary and secondary schools), there are SAUTI clubs established and incorporated in the school curriculum. They are vital in cascading sexuality information among which sexual violence is prominently featured.
Girly Network is working to strengthen these grassroots structures, amidst the resource challenges they face. The organization is working with the Community Development Organisation (CDO) in the Northern division, who is a government employee. He has been instrumental in supporting the campaigns against sexual violence.
Uganda also has para social workers at the village level, who are instrumental in the response to sexual violence. Despite the structures put in place by the government, their implementation remains limited and abuse rampant. All these instruments help curb and deal with all forms of SGBV (sexual and gender based violence). The challenge the country faces is establishing systems to implement these.
Survivor support services remain extremely limited and uncoordinated. Many communities and duty-bearers continue to believe that SGBV (sexual and gender based violence) is acceptable, silencing survivors and pressuring them not to report the abuse or receive help.
Q: Has Uganda taken any steps to promote overall gender equality in the country?
A: Yes, the government has rolled out several interventions to this effect. The latest being commitment through conducting Gender Statistics’ Analysis, United Nations Entity for Gender Entity among other policies. The government has scored highly in gender equality by the equal employment law through its gender transformative approach.
There is information by the government that provides friendly facts on sex disaggregated information on prominent gender issues, GBV (gender based violence) specifically physical and sexual, asset ownership, and employment in Uganda. This has been crucial for different stakeholders as a basis for identifying gender statistics gaps, guiding, planning, and decision making at various levels, and support advocacy for budget allocation at all levels for the gender issues.
In the education sector, girls vying to join higher institutions of learning have a 1.5 point advantage over boys to increase chances and enrollment at higher institution of learning.
Q: How can readers and outside countries support Girly Network in its efforts to combat sexual violence in Uganda?
A: There is a need for capacity building and training for GIRLY Network, ensuring that there is a clear understanding of sexual violence, as well as the mechanisms to address it. This requires partnerships with various groups.
Girly also requires funding support toward its projects in the form of grants, donations and any other ways. We also accept and provide internship opportunities for individuals. Our doors are always open to volunteers both overseas and local. Documentation of our contribution to society would greatly help us reach out to many more people. We need support to tell our stories better, whether with media skills or equipment.
There is a need for safe shelter for survivors of sexual violence. In addition, help to ensure access to medical care, psychosocial and legal support are needed to deal with this ugly vice.
The fight against sexual violence is men’s as well as women’s fight. Safer homes, communities, and countries benefits everyone. We are stronger and better...together.
G. Bush Ocen is a Behaviour Change Communication Practitioner, feminist, and volunteer with Girls Like You Network (GIRLY) in Uganda. He helps the organization build a strong strategy and components of the broader SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights). He has helped GIRLY strengthen their outreach model and structures necessary to respond to sexual violence cases and advance gender equality and women empowerment.
He is also the coordinator of Guys Like You (GULY), a component of GIRLY Network, which focuses on modeling proper male behavior and fatherhood for young males between ages 10-19.
Bush believes that men and women can work together to break barriers that keep women down, like the sense of entitlement and culture of dominance which breeds violence.
When not empowering the lives of young people at Straight Talk Foundation with SRHR knowledge and information, he supports GIRLY Network's efforts to eliminate sexual violence. When in Iganga town, Uganda, you can find him spiting & writing poetry at Nile and Entebbe Poetry Clubs. He uses stories to break the silence on sexual violence.