A transport ban in Uganda means women are trapped at home with their abusers
Seconds after Veronica opened her eyes in the hospital, she knew who had put her there. Her body ached; her head throbbed.
The night before, the 25-year-old mother-of-five was busy buying medication for her children in Moroto, a town in northeast Uganda. When Veronica (whose surname we’re not using to protect her identity) returned home, her husband picked up a sharp object and stabbed her in the right eye. He then beat her, and when she blacked out, he fled, she said.
Two legal volunteers from the Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA-U), an organization that provides legal aid and access to essential services for women, were already working on the ground in the community. They heard Veronica’s screams and decided to investigate. After finding her lying unconscious on the floor, they called their colleague Jacob Lokuda, a front-line legal clerk who responds rapidly to violent incidents, and who recounted what happened.
“She had lost a lot of blood,” said 25-year-old Lokuda, “it was very nasty.”
The three men carried her to Moroto hospital, roughly four miles away. By car, the journey is a 20-minute drive; by foot, it took over one hour. Veronica drifted in and out of consciousness, mumbling that she thought she was already dead.
“He had gone beyond reason”
On May 4, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni began to loosen the country’s strict anti-coronavirus restrictions after more than six weeks in lockdown. While businesses including hardware shops and wholesale stores have now reopened, the existing ban on all public and private transport remains intact.
This means, critics say, that many women will continue not only to be trapped at home with a potential perpetrator, but they remain unable to travel to seek medical treatment, refuge or help.
The country currently has 160 confirmed Covid-19 cases and no fatalities, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Many women, like Veronica, have found themselves forced to spend more time with partners who were already abusive.
Economic worry is an added tension. More than 80% of Ugandans work in the informal sector and many have lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 restrictions.
“We stopped a lot to catch our breath,” says Lokuda, who had already jogged 40 minutes to Veronica’s village from his own home. “We didn’t have any protective gear, such as gloves, but she needed medical attention,” he adds.
“He had gone beyond reason,” Veronica said over the phone.
In late March, Museveni indicated that domestic violence is not life threatening and should not be considered so during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We’re just dealing with a few things [that are] life-threatening. Childbirth, snakebite, heart attack — finish. What else is there? We’re not dealing with all problems. Somebody is drunk and has beaten his wife? No, no, no,” he said.
He has since addressed the issue and said he is devising a “comprehensive plan” on how best to handle the situation.
While ambulances have been given travel permits, the number of vehicles is low and many citizens live in villages with a patchy phone signal.
Those working in essential services such as health care are allowed on the roads, yet legal aid providers were not deemed essential until last week. Now, 30 lawyers working for the Uganda Law Society are permitted to provide urgent legal services.
“This is a positive step,” says Irene Ekonga, FIDA-U’s director of programs, “but it’s a drop in the ocean.”
Movement is an issue, agrees Rose Nalubega, acting commissioner for the national police’s Sexual and Children Offences department in Kampala, the bustling Ugandan capital.
“Response is our greatest challenge,” she said in an interview. “We’re operating in the normal way but [Covid-19] has escalated the problem. We were not prepared, but we try.”
Ugandans can apply for a special travel permit from the resident district commissioner, but locals have complained their offices are often empty. For organizations like FIDA-U, time is of the essence — and applying for a permit waiver can take hours.
“In these emergency situations, the first response is what really counts,” says Lokuda. “I put everything down because we have to move fast, but there are lots of delays.”
Those found driving without permission can be arrested or have their vehicle impounded.
Several weeks ago, Lokuda received an 8 a.m. call about an alleged rape. As it was still early, and the young woman’s village was a little further out, he decided to seek permission for transport. After negotiations, he didn’t arrive until 2 p.m.
“It was too late,” he sighs. “The perpetrator had already run away but at least we managed to bring her for a medical examination.”
Police were called and they took her to a station before Lokuda brought her to the hospital in the car he’d been given approval to travel in.
“Violence against women is accepted here”
In one month, police noted a surge in gender-based violence cases, with an estimated 3,280 recorded between March 30 and April 28, according to Frank Tumwebaze, the Minister of Gender, Labour and Social Development.
In 2019, an average of 1,137 domestic violence cases were reported monthly.
FIDA-U say they witnessed a 522% increase in the number of cases reported by phone (from nine on average to 56 calls per week) since the lockdown was first introduced, though they believe many more domestic violence cases are going unrecorded.
Violence against children has also soared: the Uganda Child Helpline dealt with 881 cases since the lockdown began in late March (the average is 248).
The surge in domestic abuse is set against a backdrop of already high levels in the country. Forty-six percent of ever-married women say they are afraid of their current or most recent spouse or partner compared to 23% of ever-married men, according to figures published by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics in 2016.
“Violence against women is accepted here,” says Josephine Aparo, Senior Coordinator at International Justice Mission (IJM) Uganda, who work with police and prosecutors to bring perpetrators to court.
After a 14-day period, the President will announce the next phase of reopening on 19 May. Yet experts are concerned the existing problems will continue.
“[Once the transport ban lifts], women in close proximity with abusive partners might be able to report and seek refuge elsewhere,” says Ekonga.
“Issues like economic difficulties are still likely to persist, as well as dependence on male partners for financial support. Cases might drop slightly but by and large, I think they will remain higher than the rates before the lockdown.”
Veronica had been with her husband for 12 years before this assault, which she reported to police in a local station. She had previously reported him some years ago because, she says, he wasn’t taking care of the children properly. He didn’t have a job, and Veronica’s work as a street vendor selling meat dried up due to Covid-19 restrictions. They had little money for food or rent.
While her case is being followed up by the Ugandan police, several rights organizations say the police have been unable to adequately respond to incidents or make arrests.
“The police are usually under-resourced,” explains Tina Musuya, executive director of the Center for Domestic Violence Prevention. “During an emergency like this? Violence against women is a forgotten territory.”
Amid the pandemic, police vehicles were reallocated to the Covid-19 response, which left a shortage elsewhere. Several organizations who supported law enforcement with cars before the transport ban have since been given permission to do so again. IJM, for example, is providing cars to assist police investigations into gender-based violence crimes.
Many women and children flee their abusers with nowhere to go: all domestic violence shelters have closed across the country, bar one, though this may change as the lockdown gradually lifts. The police have recently opened a new temporary shelter in Kampala, and launched a toll-free line in a bid to handle the increasing number of cases.
“It’s astonishing,” says Asia Russell of Health GAP, a HIV advocacy organization with staff in Uganda. “The mode of implementation of the Covid-19 response has killed people,” she adds, referring to vulnerable groups such as women experiencing violence, with chronic illnesses and those who are pregnant.
“Where is the infrastructure for communities who are experiencing increased terror? Don’t they matter?” Russell says.
Weeks after Veronica was released from hospital, her eye is still painful.
She and her husband haven’t spoken since that “fateful night,” she says, before adding firmly: “I’m not going to have contact with him again.”
She still has difficulty sleeping, but she feels safe and, for now, that will do.