Challenges from the field (Part II)

Continuing on from last time, here’s Part II of ‘Challenges from the Field’.

Negative Attitudes toward Women are Pervasive

Admittedly, there are negatively-held attitudes towards women in all cultures. Women have historically been associated with emotionality and are often labelled “hysterical”. Hysteria’s link to women is entrenched in our culture through language: think of the word “hysterectomy”, named based on taking the “craziness” out of women (i.e., removal of the uterus and, sometimes, other female reproductive organs). Such deeply rooted attitudes make any work toward equality highly challenging.

Some of the staunchest supporters of discriminatory and negative attitudes towards women are held by women themselves. Some female community members in Uganda affirm the idea that women should not own property – an attitude that works against the goals of putting women on equal footing with men and serves to cement their lower status. One of the reasons that women themselves hold these views is that they are socialized and their ideas are shaped by this patrilineal culture in Acholiland, where identity, value, and inheritance rights are derived from and traced through the male lineage. This patriarchal system that teaches women that they have less value, while men have more value, deserve more respect, should have all (or most of) the power and are entitled to more. One reason that GBV programming must aim to transform not only men’s attitudes but also those of women is to dismantle deeply held patriarchal views and values that are instilled from birth.

I believe myself that privilege is invisible and in order to open other people’s eyes to inequality, we need to make inequality visible and real – focusing not only on the plethora of disadvantages of inequality, but the myriad benefits of equality.

Double Standards

When it comes to facing real and systemic violence and discrimination, women often find themselves acting as tightrope walkers, having to negotiate unachievable standards to fit the mould of what constitutes “normal” behaviour as a woman in the every day, and the embodiment of the “ideal” victim when victimized.

Let’s take the example of sexual violence. I recently gave a workshop to a local NGO on GBV that opened into a heated discussion among participants of what was appropriate behaviour for girls and women. Young women are, in some regions in the north, forbidden from riding a boda boda (motorcycle), for fear that it will “break” their virginity. While it was rather simple to explain that this is a myth, the deeply held view that girls and women must be sexually pure in every way before marriage kept cropping up throughout the day.

When our group starting discussion sexual violence, participants were quick to cast blame on women for dressing inappropriately – the oft cited victim-blaming we see everywhere on the planet that shifts the blame from the rapist and places onus on women who have been violated. Participants also said that domestic violence (whether initiated by a man or a woman) occurs because women weaponize sex, holding men hostage to sexual relationships by refusing sex within their marriages in order to punish men. Therefore, it is “normal” and “deserved” for them to be beaten and raped.

While girls, from a young age, are taught to be sexually pure, there is an expectation that, once married, a woman should be at all times ready to acquiesce to her husband’s sexual demands. It is a double-edged sword for women, who are often denied the opportunity to learn about female sexuality and limited throughout their lives in the ways they are allowed to explore and express their femininity and sexuality. But once married, we expect them to master sexuality. How confusing is that?


It is no secret that there is a thick web of corruption present in Uganda. When we first arrived, the locals would openly joke about how corrupt their government is, along with important actors in maintaining peace and justice. This corruption is present in every aspect of the justice system. Not only do we hear stories of cash transfers being made to police to look the other way, but court officials are also at risk of receiving payments to sway their judgements. Even social pressure (for example, if an accused perpetrator is a highly-regarded person within the community) can cloud the legal process.

What I wasn’t expecting was seeing corruption within the health system, workers who are meant to provide care for the public. Under Ugandan policy, sexual assault victims are meant to have access to HIV Post Exposure Preventive (PEP) Treatment for free. This potentially life-saving treatment which is ideally given 2 hours after exposure and no later than 72 hours after exposure is meant to be guaranteed to any person who has been sexually violated. Unfortunately, however, HANDLE’s experience has been fraught with frustration in attempting to support survivors with this service. Health workers continually imply that they will only have kits available once a payment has been made.

The sad consequences of corruption means that survivors of GBV, who already face an uphill battle to find and access support services, are further impeded from getting the necessary support and justice that they need and deserve.

Thinking about all of these difficulties that survivors and NGOs face when trying to combat GBV, one can think that this is an impossible problem with no remedy. This is not an easy problem to fix: it took years to build and entrench this behaviour, it will take years to overcome it. It can be incredibly frustrating, yes. But we can’t stop. People’s lives and well-being are at stake here. The future of the country is at stake here. We need to keep fighting back together, and I am hoping that I can extend my reach and motivate as many people as possible to join HANDLE in the fight.