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Women Thrown Off Their Land

Many cases of domestic violence linked to widows stripped of their property by family members.
By Gloria Aciro
With northern Uganda at relative peace following years of war wreaked by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, activists are now worried about rising outbreaks of domestic violence.



“The situation is worrying and a majority of the cases are violence on women over land disputes,” Sarah Apio, the Gulu legal officer of the Federation of Women Lawyers in Uganda, FIDA-Uganda, said recently.



She said most of the cases of domestic violence involve women being forced off their husband’s land after the husband had died, “Relatives want to strip these widows of everything despite them having children.



“Most of the widows have no income and they rely on agricultural activities for survival, yet they are being thrown off the land.”



She recalls visiting a victim in Opit sub-county in May, “There we found a mother [with eight children]. It was claimed that she was from Bugishu and since the husband who brought her had died, she must go back to where she came from.”



According to Apio, a large number of crimes that have been investigated and sent to the courts are still awaiting a hearing because of the sheer number of cases.



At least 329 cases of domestic violence were registered by the local police child and family protection unit in the last 14 months.



In addition to cases related to land disputes, a growing number are linked to the voluntary return and resettlement of internally displaced persons, IDPs



Gulu has been a focus of fighting between LRA rebels and the army but open hostilities ended in 2006 and the refugee camps have closed.



“Since people started going back home, issues of domestic violence are on the increase. The locals got used to camp life where they would get free food and now they are finding it hard to work and get their own food,” said the Gulu district police commander, Moses Okello.



In one recent case, a man battered his wife to death using a branch of a tree. He later handed himself in to police, leaving behind nine children.



He said he was angry at his wife after he found her at a drinking joint late at night. However, her relatives told The New Vision website that their daughter had only gone out to buy food for the children.



“These nine orphans, like other children, will be neglected, abused and abandoned. They have now added to the increasing number of orphans in the district,” said police spokesman Johnson Kalama.



In September last year, another man, who was a displaced person from the Ongako IDP camp, followed his wife who had gone to weed her cabbages and hacked her to death. They had seven children.



The woman had apparently fled her husband’s continual violence and was staying at her father's home. Her parents said the man’s behaviour had become intolerable.



The man, who was later arrested and charged with murder, told the court he killed his wife out of anger because she had planned to have him arrested. The man had a prior criminal record and had just been released from prison.



Apio says more victims of domestic violence would come forward if they were aware that something could be done to help them, “Most of the women and children who suffer are ignorant of their own rights. Being vulnerable, they lose a sense of direction and continue suffering without knowing what to do next.”



FIDA says that the biggest problem when it comes to access to justice for women involved in land disputes is the fact that many couples cohabit for a long period of time, yet the law says they have to be married for the woman to have rights to the property.



It hopes that a proposed domestic relations bill will help rectify this by giving property rights to cohabitees.



Henry Kilama, a member of the Law Society for Northern Uganda, said more than 3,000 land disputes are pending, with only one magistrate for Gulu available to deal with them.



“Some of the land-related problems need to be resolved at the community level with the involvement of the traditional chiefs (the Rwodi). The cases are too many for only one chief magistrate to deal with single-handedly,” Kilama said.



Kilama backs FIDA’s call for mediation and dialogue to resolve such disputes.



The charity, War Child Canada, which for the last five years has been offering domestic violence victims in Gulu legal counselling, also prefers non-judicial solutions.



“We see the court as a last resort. It is time consuming [and] most of the victims do not understand the lengthy procedures so [the majority] of cases we try to resolve through mediation, counselling, and dialogue,” said Vanina Trojan, the organisation’s legal protection coordinator



Gloria Aciro Laker is an IWPR-trained reporter.

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