Balance for Better

By Jane Ocaya Irama

The global theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is Balance for better. It brings to mind a seesaw. When out of balance, one side is too weighted and stuck to the ground. The other side, however, floats in the air seemingly unable to even have its feet touch the ground. This is the reality we see in our society today. One side is weighted by patriarchy and the attendant attitudes towards women’s rights, while the other side seems to be floating in the air in the illusion that they are making progress – albeit, without their feet touching the ground.

One of the consequences of the lack of balance is Violence Against Women and Girls (VAW/G). This can be described as “acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty”. This type of violence is gender-based, meaning that the acts of violence are committed against women and girls expressly because they are female.

VAW/G is everywhere, we can see it in our homes, on the streets, in refugee settlements and at workplaces. Wherever women/girls have found themselves in subordinate positions, the risks of facing violence are high.

VAW/G is a grave violation of human rights. Its impact ranges from immediate to long-term multiple physical, sexual and mental consequences for women and girls, including death. It negatively affects women’s general well-being and prevents women from fully participating in society. Violence not only has negative consequences for women but also their families, the community and the country at large. It has tremendous costs, from greater health care and legal expenses to losses in productivity, impacting national budgets and overall development (http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women).

VAW/G is a socio-economic and political issue, which is intrinsically linked to gender inequality and poverty. In Uganda, various studies have demonstrated the prevalence and impact of VAW/G from a socio-economic and political perspective. The Uganda Demographic and Health Survey 2016 indicates that women in Uganda are more than twice as likely to experience sexual violence as men. More than 1 in 5 women age 15-49 (22 percent) report that they have experienced sexual violence at some point in time compared with fewer than 1 in 10 (8 percent) men. Thirteen percent of women and 4 percent of men reported experiencing sexual violence in the 12 months preceding the survey. Further, experience of sexual violence ever and in the past 12 months is lowest among women with more than secondary education. This implies that less educated and poorer women are more prone to violence.

VAW/G takes on a development perspective because it is a human rights issue. The elimination of VAW/G can potentially lead to human development at the personal level and in aggregate terms to the economy because it can potentially break the cyclical nature of poverty and inequality.

This is the reason, Oxfam believes that placing women’s rights at the centre of the development process will produce wholistic development. To illustrate this argument, if girls are able to complete the school cycle without the fear of being preyed upon by male figures including teachers and if their economic rights to be afforded an education are realized this will potentially reduce their risk to violence and result into more productive lives.

However, in order for this to happen, two key factors are important. The first is that we must have the necessary policies and laws in place to protect women/girls and these must be implemented. Early this year the media was inundated with reports of forced FGM of girls and women in the Sebei region with the police unable to offer any protection to the victims or take action against the perpetrators despite the existence of a law to curb this practice. It is important that the law serves as a deterrent. It therefore must be implemented without fear or favour to save the bodily integrity of girls and women. What happened with the forced mutilation of girls and women is an affront to justice.

The second factor is addressing social norms , which are beliefs or actions that certain groups of people consider socially acceptable. A 2018 study on social norms carried out by Oxfam and UWONET revealed that there are 4 forms of violence linked to social norms. One of them is physical violence. This is justified by many people if it is believed that a woman has erred or transgressed. However, the reality is that it is simply a manifestation of power. Several cases point to this including the recent incident of the traffic policewoman assaulted by army officers for doing her work.

Addressing these two factors - the policy and legal framework for gender equality as well as social norms - will go a long way in balancing the seesaw. Balance infers equality between women and men, which includes eliminating all forms of VAW/G. This is significant in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals particularly goal 5 on gender equality, which recognizes that ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls is not only a basic human right, but is also crucial to accelerating sustainable development. It has been proven that empowering women and girls has a multiplier effect and helps drive up economic growth and development across the board.

This is the message that we must continue to drum as we commemorate the International Women’s Day 2019.