After countless emails, phone calls, and online research, I finally obtained a full copy of the elusive draft domestic violence bill last week. I owe a “thank you” to UWOPA (Uganda Women’s Parliamentary Association) for granting me entry to their Parliament office.
The Parliament building is a well-known Kampala landmark situated in a lush garden, but its contemporary design is more imposing than appealing. Flanked by at least a dozen heavily armed policemen, the front gate looms before visitors like the portal into Oz. Appropriately, the interior of the building is a virtual labyrinth of staircases and corridors. After several wrong turns, I arrived at a door featuring the letters UWOPA scrawled on a scrap of paper affixed to the door alongside a bumper sticker bearing the slogan “Women make policy, not coffee”. Behind the proverbial curtain, in a rather small but efficient office, lies ground zero for Uganda’s women’s rights movement.
Uganda houses a large number of civil society organizations that actively and courageously campaign on behalf of women’s rights and gender equality, but they face enormous challenges in the form of prevailing social and cultural norms (see previous blog). The Ugandan constitution, drafted in 1995, pays special tribute to the protection of women’s rights, promising them “full and equal dignity with men” (Section 33.1) and even sets in place an affirmative action system that guarantees female representation in Parliament. Much of the constitution’s language, along with the administration’s espoused commitment to gender issues, however, has failed to translate from rhetorical gesture into pragmatic action.
For these reasons, the tabling of the domestic violence draft bill is a small miracle in and of itself. This bill, more than a decade in the making, was finally tabled by Parliament in March of this year. Without the indefatigable work of women’s organizations and female parliamentarians, this bill would have certainly died long ago. By critiquing the bill, I do not want to diminish the triumphant feat achieved by these activists, but I do believe that the draft law needs to be strengthened, especially in terms of addressing the links between domestic violence and small arms.
The bill’s strong points:
The draft bill provides for a very thorough definition of domestic violence that includes not only physical and sexual assault, but also emotional, verbal, psychological, and economic abuse, as well as various forms of harassment. By recognizing the detrimental effects of psychological abuse, the bill would open the door for women who are enslaved by the threat of violence. When a firearm is kept in the home, this fear is especially acute and may paralyze the victim from seeking assistance.
The introduction of protection orders is another welcome measure. A protection order works like a restraining order to prevent the perpetrator from having contact with the victim. It also may include provisions regarding temporary child custody and maintenance payments to the victim. Moreover, the courts would be required hear a case within 48 hours of an application being filed, even on holidays and weekends. Such an expedient response could prevent a violent situation from becoming a deadly one.
Also impressive are its attempts to address the economic factors that lead to power imbalances between men and women. Many victims of violence in Uganda are forced to choose between a life with an abusive partner or one of complete destitution. Others fear that they will either not receive custody of their children-the courts presently favor paternal custody—or that they will be unable to provide for dependents without spousal support. The bill astutely recognizes that facing such a so-called ‘choice’ is indicative of systemic abuse against women.
Loopholes, ambiguities, and weak spots:
There are at least three substantial gaps in the legislation: 1.The sentence for first offenders is fairly light; 2. The section on protection orders does not mention holding an alleged perpetrator in custody, and it fails to provide a safe space or shelter for the victim pending trial; 3. The bill does not make any mention of firearms regulations.
First-time offenders face a maximum prison sentence of only two years, and, if history is any precedent, the average sentence would be significantly shorter. Others may be let off by simply paying a fine. Because victims of intimate partner violence are more likely than other categories of victims to face retribution, they need to be assured that the prescribed punishment is an adequate deterrent against recidivism.
Furthermore, victims need greater protection during the pre-trial phase. If abuse is suspected, the offender should be detained to ensure the victim’s safety, yet protection orders do not offer such a safeguard. Nor do they provide a respite for victims seeking shelter. Earlier this year, Nathan Awoloi made headlines for beating his wife and forcing her to breastfeed his puppies. After being detained for a short time, he was released, only to nearly beat his wife to death (New Vision, June 1, 2009).
This case and all too many more like it reveal why gun laws and domestic violence laws must be harmonized. The court needs to disarm and suspend gun licenses for alleged perpetrators once a protection order is issued. If convicted, an offender needs to be barred from accessing a firearm by illegalizing possession and restricting the individual from being able to obtain a gun license.
Furthermore, as the National Focal Point has suggested, Uganda needs to re-evaluate its policy on firearms held by police, local defense forces, and private security companies. In two separate incidents this year, police officers have used official guns to shoot their wives (New Vision, June 3, 2009). (I will write more about gun laws and SALW agreements in an upcoming blog.)
As I said earlier, I want to pay tribute to the heroic efforts of women’s advocacy groups for getting this bill on the national agenda. The passage of the draft domestic violence law would finally recognize the value of women in the home and in society at large, but the bill’s efficacy will be undermined if it ignores the small arms crisis.
Posted By Courtney Chance
Posted Jul 20th, 2009