Challenges from the field (Part I)

After having been settled in and working alongside my Ugandan counterparts for just over 6 months, I wanted to share some of my insights into the real challenges of implementing a project aimed at dismantling harmful views about women and addressing GBV. While there remains much to learn regarding understanding the intricacies and nuances inherent in Acholi culture, along with other ethnicities inhabiting this region, here are some of the challenges I have identified thus far.

Lack of Knowledge and Understanding of GBV

This is a fairly obvious one. One of the goals of any GBV project is to increase the public’s awareness about what constitutes GBV and why it happens. What I would like to point out here is that while the public indeed lack understanding of their rights and what forms GBV takes, there is also a big dearth in knowledge at all levels – including key players involved in tackling this issue. This is particularly true for understanding what the root causes of GBV are. I have noticed during the trainings I have conducted with several NGOs that staff continue to lack expertise and depth of understanding about this incredibly complex issue.

I remember chatting with a local government official who explained to me that he thought that GBV had nothing to do with gender inequality at all. I also had the unpleasant experience of sitting with the police and having them make rape jokes, laughing and saying that rape is really not a problem because “Acholi men don’t know how to rape”. Despite this, we continue to see many cases of child rape, a phenomenon that the Ugandan Police Force has said is among their top FIVE most common offences, and which they claim continues to climb.

Lack of Resources

As part of HANDLE’s program, we work closely with local police and health service providers to help connect survivors with legal and medical services for support. There are few health centres that have the staff to conduct certain types of services to collect evidence and provide treatment to GBV survivors, particularly sexual violence survivors. This means that the burden of accessing these services are squared on the shoulders of survivors who live in very poor living conditions. These survivors must travel long distances to access services, yet most simply do not have the money to hire a boda boda to reach these far-off health facilities.

Similarly, police have repeatedly requested financial support from HANDLE to better manage their cases. The police have told us that they lack fuel and their tires are worn threadbare, meaning that they cannot work effectively to go and conduct the investigations necessary to ensure that cases are handled properly. The population in Nwoya District, the region where HANDLE’s interventions are concentrated, are spread out across a vast area of African bush, with very poor road conditions, especially when it rains. Our organization cannot start supplementing their funds, as this would clearly create a dependency that should be fulfilled by the government.

The police have even pointed out that they often do not have enough funds to ensure that they have the proper forms to record complaints of GBV. They tell us that they often request that the survivor go and make a photocopy of the form, something which costs 1,000 UGX (or roughly 0.26 CHF), and is simply not feasible. As with the health centres, police posts are few and far between, meaning that survivors may have to scrape together enough funds (when possible) to reach the police. It is exceedingly difficult (emotionally) to make the decision to come forward and report victimization, considering that most cases involve a close family member as the perpetrator. Reporting can place victims at risk of further violence, stigmatization, and social isolation. To go through all the hurdles to report only to face further obstacles like financial constraints is something that no person should have to go through.

Lack of Infrastructure

As I mentioned earlier, while Uganda is making impressive progress in terms of attempting to upgrade its current existing infrastructure (for example, paving roads at breakneck speeds and backbreaking work tunneling through the red earth by hand to lay pipes to give people access to running water), most of the population living in rural areas are scattered and do not have the money to buy their own means of transportation. Coupled with this, there are very few options in terms of “affordable” public transportation that reach these areas.

A core part of HANDLE’s approach to preventing and responding to GBV involves hosting community sensitization events to increase the rural public’s awareness of their rights and the dynamics involved in addressing GBV. In my view, HANDLE does a good job in trying to host these education events in forgotten communities, who are located far from more urbanized centres. To do this, we have to drive sometimes an hour or two out into the bush along narrow dirt roads, flanked by grasses as tall as I am.

The poor road conditions pose a challenge to accessing these communities, because it simply takes a lot more time and effort to mobilize community members in these areas to attend our events. If our event happens to fall on a day where it suddenly rains, our attendance rates tend to reflect this, as all community sensitizations are held outdoors, generally under a large mango tree. This means that all of the efforts and planning put in place for these events may eventually prove to be inefficient due to a sudden change in the winds – something which is quite unpredictable in this region.

I have read reports of other organizations going to conduct their activities, and stopping short of making it all the way up to a house, for example, to provide psychological care to a client, because the ground was too swampy and wet and their vehicle would not make it through. In July, after a swift dump of rain, we were driving about an hour and a half on the way to our own community sensitization, and our car ended up getting wedged on a high ridge of mud while trying to avoid tumbling into a large pool of water flooding the dirt road. While we scrambled to get wood and shovels to dig ourselves free, ultimately, two of my team members and I ended up walking a couple of kilometers to the village we were trying to reach to push ahead with our program. Needless to say, I was looking a lot like a Canadian lobster from the sunburn I got while walking in the punishing heat of the midday sub-Saharan sun.

Additionally, HANDLE’s own work is impeded by “doomsa doomsa” – never-ending sporadic power outages that happen on a near daily basis and can last from a few hours to several days at a time (or more!) This makes it challenging to communicate among team members and to send important documents or messages and access information. When the power goes out, the internet usually goes with it. Importantly, this challenge also makes Uganda an unattractive candidate for any business investors (especially foreign, those that tend to have the capital) to set up shop here. Lack of electricity means that they would need to invest heavily in generators to make sure they can maintain production at a profitable level. Clearly, this impedes the entire country’s economic development, further entrenching the population in poverty.

There are so many difficulties facing this country, so I will post another article on other important elements complicating development projects (and HANDLE’s GBV project, in particular) – watch this space!