On International Women's Day: Reducing violence against women in northeast Uganda
Rape is a tactic often used by Karamojong warriors in the course of cattle raids and retaliations. If women fall in the path of such raiders while walking to gather firewood or fetch water, they may be assaulted repeatedly.
Yet such violent incidents also reflect the wider subordination women often face in their communities. Many lead lives full of obligation and deprived of choice. Their husbands have paid a 'bride price' - usually in the form of cattle - to their families to marry them and now they are seen as property.
"There is a lot of work attached to a bride price - a married woman must become the backbone of the family," says Priscilla Nakira of Loima women's group in Moroto district. Women are responsible for building the family home, caring for children, fetching water and firewood, tending the garden, cooking meals and much more.
And punishment is stiff for the wife who struggles to cope. Says Nakira: "When she fails to provide, she is beaten and the man will say he has wasted his cows buying her." Indeed, domestic violence is common. and courtship rape, a practice whereby a man 'chooses' his wife through forced sex, is accepted as a normal engagement in some communities.
"Sadly, this is the reality facing many women and girls in Karamoja and it's difficult to address when few people see it as a problem," says Kevin McNulty, technical coordinator for IRC programs to reduce violence against women in Uganda.
The IRC is therefore rolling out a seven-month campaign to start communities talking about the causes and effects of violence against women, and how it could be prevented.
"We want to spark debate," McNulty says. "We want people to challenge themselves and ask 'are these patterns healthy and are they giving us what we want?' Because ultimately it's up to communities to decide how best to protect their families."
The IRC has already trained 36 health center staff across Karamoja to give medical treatment, forensic analysis and emotional support to women who seek help following sexual assault.
McNulty explains: "If health centers aren't equipped and staff aren't compassionate to survivors, then women won't come forward. We're helping to ensure that government health workers can give the appropriate medical care as well as psychosocial support to start women on the path to healing."
In 2010, the IRC will work with women like Nakira to ensure communities know these services are available and how to access them. Nakira and her peers are part of the Karamoja Women's Umbrella Organization (KAWUO) - a network of more than 80 women's groups - and the IRC is training KAWUO members in five villages to provide information to women and girls who have been assaulted or raped.
"If people are not aware, they will not seek help," she says. "We must work to spread information to communities, and we must examine the negative consequences of these patterns."
By continuing to work with strong women like Nakira, the IRC hopes to reduce the number of women living in fear and misery and empower them to demand a better future.
Stop Violence Against Women
1 in 3 women will be raped or abused in her lifetime. Urge leaders of Congress to support the International Violence Against Women Act. Together we can ensure a safer future for women and girls around the world.