Half of all Ugandan girls and women between the ages of 15 and 49 will experience physical or sexual domestic violence at some point in their lives, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics. But the country recently sent a message that it will no longer tolerate such abuse.
The East African country held hundreds of men responsible for sexual violence committed against women, convicting them during a month of special court sessions.
The court sessions were part of a pilot project aimed at addressing a backlog of more than 1,000 cases of crimes against women, and were held between November 12 and December 15.
In a recent report published by the Justice, Law, and Order Sector — a joint initiative bringing together Ugandan government ministries, legal organizations, and rights groups — the sessions, the first of their kind, were deemed successful.
Through 13 special court sessions in as many districts around the country, over 788 cases were heard and decided, with the courts convicting 414 men and nine women and doling out sentences ranging from community service to 50 years in prison.
Activists lauded the “decisive action” that sent a clear message to perpetrators of such crimes.
According to Ugandan police crime report for 2017, 14,985 cases of sexual assault against people under the age of 18 and 1,335 rape cases were reported. One in five women in the country has faced sexual violence, and about 25% of girls become pregnant before 19, according to a 2016 government survey.
“SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence] has been on the increase in Uganda. Decisive action is therefore required,” Livingstone Sewanyana, executive director at the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, told the Guardian.
“Given that [sexual violence] involves infringement of the dignity and privacy of the individual, having special courts on SGBV is appropriate. Giving deterrent sentences is encouraged,” he added.
One of those convicted was a 35-year-old man who was found guilty of abusing his 12-year-old niece in the Soroti district of Uganda. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison.
“I am happy with the sentence and I know it is a lesson for other men in the community,” the girl’s mother said. “Everybody said the perpetrator would bribe the officials and be set free. When I heard the sentence, I felt that justice had been served.”
Crimes committed against girls and women in Uganda fall on a spectrum of violence, including sexual harassment, rape, child marriage, and domestic abuse, according to government officials. These account for 60% of cases handled by the country’s high court.
“We applaud the gesture of special court sessions on GBV [gender-based violence]. Convicting more than 400 perpetrators is an exciting and welcomed landmark,” Simon Richard Mugenyi, advocacy and communications manager at Reproductive Health Uganda, said.
“It’s a massive signal to those who plan to abuse women’s rights. It has been one of the missing links. Therefore, this will go a long away to curb GBV,” he added.
However, activists and officials, like lawyer Mercy Grace Munduru and judiciary spokesman Solomon Muyita, also say that more efforts are needed to ensure sensitivity toward survivors, including specialized training for judges who preside over such cases, on gender-based violence.
While the special court sessions only lasted a month, they are being seen as a step in the right direction in providing girls and women in Uganda with proper protection and basic rights.