Uganda: A night on the hotline [16 Days]
2009 marks the 18th anniversary of the "16 days of Activism Against Gender Violence" campaign.
It's 2 am when Apio Agnes' mobile phone rings. She's suddenly awake and ready to go.
It's her night to answer calls to a 24-hour hotline dedicated to anyone who needs advice or support on rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment or other forms of gender-based violence. The hotline gives victims and potential targets of violence the chance to talk to a trained professional in confidence.
"I've received calls late in the night from women saying 'my husband has assaulted me' or 'he is forcing me to sleep with him' and they don't know where to turn," Agnes says. "Last Saturday, a man called and said his wife was beating him, although I must admit the overwhelming majority of the calls are from women."
Agnes is one of three staffers on rotation at the International Rescue Committee's (IRC) center in Kitgum, northern Uganda, trained to answer the hotline. They receive about 140 calls a month and are happy to ring the caller back if he or she can't afford to stay on the line.
The IRC staffer will comfort the caller and offer counseling and guidance on available services such as medical care, legal support or protection. All decisions lie with the caller and it's his or her choice on how or if to take the matter forward.
"Nationally, measures to reduce GBV are not a priority" says IRC manager Gellah Kezzy, "so the hotline provides an invaluable service. We run radio spots to promote it and have handed out hundreds of cards to promote the telephone number."
The hotline started in 2007 in Kitgum, a district wracked by years of fighting between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group and the Ugandan government.
More than 1.5 million people were forced to flee their homes and live in displacement camps, where women and young girls in particular were more vulnerable to attack or assault. A ceasefire was signed in 2006, although the LRA still operate in neighboring Sudan and the Central African Republic.
"Now that there's peace in northern Uganda and people are returning to their homes, the rising problem seems to be domestic violence," says Gellah.
"Families must rebuild their homes, replant their farms and basically start over from scratch." She adds, "It's a stressful time. Especially since the drought has destroyed many harvests this year - and it seems people are lashing out."
This situation is made worse by a lack of knowledge about human rights in many communities.
"Many women feel that, if the man is supporting the family, they don't have the right to say no to him," Gellah explains. "We are trying to change that."
The IRC is also empowering local organizations to tackle the problem to create lasting change. We are delivering training in the technical aspects of GBV, for example, how to counsel a survivor of sexual assault. We also provide training on day-to-day operations such as finance, human resources and logistics.
"We are working with groups who share a vision with the IRC and who can gradually take over programs like the 24-hour hotline," Gellah says. "As northern Uganda moves out of an 'emergency' phase, it's more important than ever that local people and local organizations are spearheading the process going forward."
For now, however, Apio Agnes and her colleagues will continue to man the calls while local partners get up to speed.
"It's a marvelous feeling when we help someone," says Agnes. "We helped one woman who'd been pressured into sex and assaulted to move to another district where she felt safe. That's what we are here to do."