On Saturday July 31, 2010, a 30 year-old woman was brutally murdered by a brother in-law in Ogan village, Pajule, Pader district northern Uganda. Susan Adong--who had three children, was seven months pregnant.
According to the police report, Adong was murdered because the family held her responsible for her husband's death. Adong's husband died in a prison after he was remanded over several cases of physical abuse against Adong.
After her husband's death, Adong was chased away from her marital home and sought refuge at her parents' home. On the fateful day Adong had gone to collect a few of her belongings, she was brutally axed several times to death.
Adong is just one of hundreds of women in Uganda who lose their lives in domestic violence.
Domestic violence has been steadily increasing over the last five years that finally the Ugandan parliament has enacted a law this year. The new law brings tough penalties for offenders, and grants power to low level authorities to tackle domestic violence while re-emphasizing women's rights to resources.
More than 78 per cent of women continue to experience domestic violence. According to the 2009 Police Crime Report, there was a rise in reported cases of deaths resulting from domestic violence, from 137 in 2008 to 165 in 2009.
But for women in northern Uganda, such laws are yet to make a difference where domestic violence-related deaths are increasing as many people resettle back in their ancestral homes after living in Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) camps for over a decade.
Pader was the heart of the fighting between government soldiers and rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army who were forced out to the Democratic Republic of Congo about three years ago.
Barbra Otuku, a social worker who works with a local organization in Pader district, Women and Rural Development Network, had counseled Adong for months after she reported physical assault cases against her husband.
“Adong was being abused, and when she took a step to report to the police and the husband was imprisoned, she lost her property and finally her life. This is the situation of many women where I work,” said Otuku.
Otuku said the major issue behind the increased wave of violence against women is the post conflict trauma and the way people have been resettled with little support.
“When the people lived in camps for years, the humanitarian organizations provided food and children had schools to attend. Now many have been sent back home with no support for livelihoods and all this work falls on the shoulder of women,” she said.
“Some women have been killed by husbands who don't find food in the home after hours of drinking.”
Last year, the government of Uganda launched a Peace Recovery and Development Plan for northern Uganda but there was no mention of specific interventions regarding mental health and trauma that the people have suffered for decades.
Many women in Pader fell victim to some of the most gruesome abuses during the two decade war ranging from rape—in which many were forced by rebels to have sex with their own children, burnt alive, physically abused, and many were forced to kill.
Shaka Francisco, the District Police Commander of Pader, said eight women have been murdered by their spouses in domestic wrangles over the last seven months.
As the rest of the population is moved to resettle, women shoulder the biggest burden of providing for families.
“People in Pader--as they go back to villages, women who have become of victims of land grabbing are mostly widows and girls whose parents died; and close relatives wanted to take over their land, which they would have inherited,” said Shaka.
The police only gets to intervene when a life has been lost or a woman has been seriously harmed. Due to cultural attitudes that label any report of abuse as airing your dirty linen in public, many women do not report cases of physical abuse.
Otuku also blames the police handling of women for few reports.
“If a woman comes to report to the police, whether it is sexual or physical abuse, they are asked taunting questions before they even record the case,” said Otuku. “These questions that bring shame to the victims make many stay away. Women are asked why they were walking alone in case of rape or what did you for the man to beat you in cases of physical abuse.”
Also public institutions like the police are not well facilitated to intervene and carry out community policing. A whole district like Pader, which has over 60,000 people, had no vehicle. Police officers have to walk long distances to crime scenes; likewise, victims have to walk long hours to report.
Even though many saw the passing of the law on domestic violence as a vital step to address the problem, its implementation still faces a lot of challenges--especially cultural beliefs.
As many as 77 percent of women in Uganda still believe that it is acceptable for their husbands to beat them. Susan Oregede, a program officer for Prevention of Gender Based Violence at Oxfam in Uganda, has written about the law that “many aspects of the new law will strengthen the fight against domestic violence, but the law alone may not make much impact in the fight against domestic violence.”
The law gives local councils a mandate to try cases of domestic violence, bring fines for perpetrators, and penalize for injuring or endangering the health of partner. It's illegal to deny a partner the economic or financial resources to which they are entitled.
But for most women in Uganda, and in post conflict communities-- especially where government structures are still very much nonexistent, such a law cannot protect women in the short term.
For Barbra Otuku, she believes women's empowerment through economic development will lift women out of the cycle of abuse that they are currently stuck in.