Essay: Social forces impacting gender based violence in Uganda

This post presents all kinds of questions, issues, angst and speculation on the problem of Gender Based Violence (GBV).  GBV is one of the major focus issues for Sabine, the Communications for Development (C4D) person I have been traveling with, along with Terra, on my trips outside of Kampala so far.  As a result, we’ve had several conversations on issues of GBV with men and women leaders in various NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), government, FBOs (Faith Based Organizations), and UNICEF offices.  BTW, I have learned that the development community loves TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) perhaps even more than the technology community does. They don’t even stop at TLAs, but move on to MLAs (Multi-Letter Acronyms).

I do not claim to present any answers here, but I do want to present some thoughts and observations from my time here.  As I have expressed elsewhere, it is far too easy to default to a western solution to solve whatever problems I encounter.  I don’t presume to understand the cultural traditions, the societal norms and the pressures that impact these individuals in their daily lives, let alone the historical context.  However, the forces influencing this particular issue struck me.  So, enough caveats. Although there is controversy associated with this position, this post/essay will explore the following idea:  Effective male empowerment programs are essential to address GBV, even though GBV is seen as an issue of the disempowerment of women.

To me, the following exchange forcefully demonstrates a basis for this position.  An (female) aid worker visited one of the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) Camps about mid-morning.  She found all the women out collecting food and water and otherwise working to provide for their families.  She found the men all collected around the camp drinking (actually drunk), even that early in the day.  She asked one of the men why he wasn’t out trying to provide for his family.  His response was “I have been reduced to the status of a dog.  What else can I do but drink?”  This exchange began her thinking about the issue of male empowerment and GBV.  However, when she started speaking to some of her female counterparts in other agencies working on GBV, she met with harsh resistance, with the primary message being that “Men are clearly empowered enough if they feel they can beat their wives with impunity”, and therefore that any resources directed towards male empowerment were not only unnecessarily but potentially even counter-productive.

Now, I am not condoning violence against women as an acceptable outcome from male disempowerment.  Nor am I in any way condoning a traditional structure that relegates women to the status of property, and thus likely contributes to a cultural norm that somehow makes GBV an acceptable expression of a man’s frustration. However, simply providing support and empowerment to women in a context where men feel useless does not remove the pressure that can, and often does, result in GBV. This issue has to be more complex or it would have been solved long ago.

The conditions within camps and forced settlements are not like “normal” communities.  The inherently transient nature (in theory, anyway) of the camps do not provide the conditions for the creation and sustainment of a traditional economy, allowing for reliable revenue generating activities, and a traditional job that a man can have to provide for his family.  In some of these settings, the social structure of the community before the camps and settlements were nomadic in nature, and thus the expectations of men had nothing to do with providing for his family in a stationary context. Adding to these difficulties is the cultural traditions surrounding what it means to be a man in this culture.  In this culture, a man must pay for a wife with, for example, 60 or 80 cows (at 300 USD a head, that’s either a lot of money or a lot of stolen cattle).  What does this say then about the relative status of the man and the woman in a marriage?

Yet, it is also perhaps too simplistic to focus on things like the bride price as the root of the problem.  Some groups in the Acholi region, for example, are working to get the elders to abolish the bride price.  Acholi women, at least according to some conversations, have mixed feelings about this.  While it does eliminate the justification for an “I paid for you therefore I own you” attitude, some women also feel that the price helps them establish value in the household. A bride price (which is how they refer to it, not as a dowry) might seem strange to our modern western notions of marriage but it isn’t historically that foreign a concept.  Certainly the plight of women in the Acholi region can’t solely be blamed on the bride price.  Just as certainly, simply abolishing the bride price can not remedy the issues of GBV.

A colleague forwarded me a link recently from the Atlantic, entitled “The End of Man” (  While the article itself includes no references to back up the statistics, there’s a thread in that article about how the recession in the US is differentially disempowering lower-middle class men.  The growth job sectors as currently projected do not tend to favor the skills that such men have typically been able to use to earn a living wage.  This article also raises the possibility of women just deciding they don’t need to keep men around, as they are more often the major financial support for the household.  While it is hard to imagine that happening in Uganda, to me there are some interesting parallels, which I will try to explore in a later post.

I also have begun to wonder about how the culture of the Acholi would have to change to support more empowered women.  There is the added pressure in that region of establishing or re-establishing communities and industry that have been disrupted or even destroyed by the LRA.  The path to stability and “a normal life” is a long one for this region.  One can hope that principles like fairness for women can be woven into the construction of their new culture and society.

As I said at the beginning, this post does not attempt to provide answers.  I can’t even say that I provided any clarity to the problem.  Expect more on this line as my thinking evolves.  As I spend time here, I find a society that has tremendous problems of health, violence, drought, starvation, corruption, instability, education, justice and exploitation.  I also see efforts, both sensible and misguided, attempting to alleviate at least some of the suffering and address some of the issues.  Finally, I see an incredible resource represented by the skills and talents of the people of this country.  The world is not so rich that we can so readily discard people. It feels sometimes that loss of life is readily accepted here; I hope this doesn’t translate into a feeling that the lives here are worthless.  They are not.

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