By Patrick Uma
Once upon a time, I asked a 15-year-old girl how she ended up on the streets. She told me a brief story: “My father and mother separated because of domestic problems. My father then began mistreating me and I ended up walking from Kitgum to Gulu to find a place to survive.’’
For the 104 kilometer journey, this teenage girl did not find a proper place or person to take her in as she had expected. She made the street her home.
Fortunately, she was rescued by a non-governmental organization in Gulu and she is undergoing rehabilitation and training in life skills before she can be reunited with her family.
The story of this 15-year-old girl mirrors the lives of several children across Uganda who are forced onto the streets because of domestic violence, mostly perpetuated by men.
A recent report released in Kampala by the Uganda Police Force indicate that violence against women and girls, women trafficking, defilement, rape and child kidnap, are on the rise.
Globally, the 16 Days of Activism on violence against women is commemorated annually from 25 November to December and ending with international Human Rights Day. Violence against women and girls – irrespective of what community, country or continent one lives or comes from – is one of the greatest challenges facing human kind today.
A report by the United Nations reveal that one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in her lifetime.
Further, women who have experienced violence are at a higher risk of HIV infection. For instance, in Uganda, a report by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development in 2008 showed that 39% of women have ever experience sexual violence compared to 11% for men, and 59.6 % have ever experience physical violence since the age of 15 compared to 53% for men.
Therefore, as individuals, leaders and advocates in our respective communities and work places, we have an opportunity and responsibility to stop this problem. One crucial step is to educate ourselves about violence against women and girls. It is uncommon that people’s general awareness is minimal.
Violence against women includes physical violence, emotional abuse, non-consensual sexual activity, rape, political and economic exclusion, denial of the rights to education, as well as denial of independent movement.
Often, violence against women and girls result from the negative and false perception of masculinity that makes men believe they hold superior stake in life. Thus, some men tend to exhibit behavior which is typically harmful to others and sometimes themselves.
It is therefore important that all men, regardless of differences, initiate and continue dialogue among themselves about violence against women and girls, and the broader issues about gender and masculinity.
The main problem is that most men who do not engage in physical or verbal abuse remain silent and do not hold fellow men accountable, much less discourage their language and behavior.
Women and girls, too, must be able to share experiences as survivors of targeted violence inflicted upon them because of their gender. Real fears about social stigma and isolation can only be overcome by recognizing that violence against women and girls is tragically normalized.
A key component for responding to violence against women and girls is messaging. Several messages have been shared in a bid to end violence against women and girls, but more importantly, such messages should be appropriate to audiences in terms of education levels, age, relevance and language.
Further, success in addressing violence against women and girls must be seen as a long-term, inter-generational endeavor. It should be about transforming cultures and societies which promote beliefs and systems harmful to women and girls.
As Uganda joins the rest of the world to commemorate International Women’s Day today under the theme, ‘Be bold for Change’, we can and should all make a concerted and bold effort to change how we treat women and girls in society. If we do that consistently and deliberately, we would be surprised at how cases of gender based violence will drop.
Editor’s Note: Do you have strong and informed opinion on current affairs in Uganda and beyond? Send a 800-word opinion to info [at] acme-ug [dot] org or hanena [at] acme-ug [org] and let your views be read.