25th November is International day for the Elimination of Violence against Women but unfortunately gender based violence is widespread in Uganda. According to studies, more than two thirds of women who have been in marital relationships have experienced some form of violence by an intimate partner. A study conducted by the Uganda Law Reform Commission revealed that half of the women surveyed reported experiencing violence on a daily or weekly basis. Yet the very notion of domestic violence is not generally recognized in Ugandan society.
While there have been some positive recent steps to fight violence against women in Uganda, in particular the adoption of laws criminalising female genital mutilation and sanctioning domestic violence, measures necessary to ensure their implementation are lacking, whilst other much needed reforms of discriminatory laws have stalled. The Marriage and Divorce Bill, fixes the minimum legal age for marriage for both sexes at 18, grants women the right to choose their spouse and the right to divorce spouses for cruelty and prohibits the practice of “widow inheritance”. It also defines matrimonial property, provides for equitable distribution of property in case of divorce and recognizes some property rights for partners that cohabit. However, the Bill does not apply to Muslim marriages, nor does it prohibit polygamy or payment of the “bride price”.
Two major pieces of legislation came into force in 2010: The Domestic Violence Act and the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act. However, implementation of these laws remains limited. Some significant pre-existing difficulties preventing access to justice for women victims of violence have not been addressed, such as the costs associated with the complaint process. Since the entry into force of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, de-localization of the practice across the Kenyan border has developed, while other harmful traditional practices in Uganda remain prevalent, including early and forced marriage, abduction of girls, “widow inheritance” and “wife sharing”. A concerted government strategy towards eliminating these practices is required.
Women’s rights still fall on the least prioritized side for instance inadequate access to education and health services. There remains a serious obstacle to access to education and health services for women and girls in Uganda especially in rural areas.
Maternal mortality remains very high. In 2011, according to the Coalition to stop maternal mortality in Uganda, 16 women died every day of preventable death in childbirth.
Economic dependency, the links between persistent violence and discrimination against women and lack of economic empowerment are underlined in the Uganda National Development Plan. Yet, thus far, insufficient measures have been taken to address these issues. In particular, women continue to face severe legal and cultural obstacles to ownership of property, including land and inheritance due to cultural attachments.