Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How the Bahati Bill hurts Ugandan women

Nick Young

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that gay sex is completely alien both to Ugandan culture and to the versions of Christianity that Ugandans espouse. Why bother, then, to legislate against it? Is it necessary to ban people, on pain of death, from doing what is culturally and religiously alien to them?

One good reason why Parliament should not spend time and public funds on this is that the brouhaha surrounding the Bahati Bill diverts attention from a real social malaise: the high prevalence of heterosexual violence against women and children.

Ugandan media often cite studies showing that 40 per cent of Ugandan women have experienced sexual violence and one in four report rape as their first sexual encounter. Last year, according to the African Network for Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect, 4,124 cases of ‘defilement’ (rape of children) were taken to court in Uganda. It is likely that many more occurred but were not reported.

ANPPCAN does not disaggregate their data by gender. (They should.) It is a safe bet, though, that child rape is overwhelmingly perpetrated by heterosexual men against girl children.

Few Ugandans would defend this catalogue of violence on the grounds that it is culturally indigenous or religiously ordained. Indeed, Uganda’s Constitution provides for gender equality and the NRM government has been pro-active in measures to promote it. Laws banning domestic violence and Female Genital Mutilation have just been passed.

But putting laws in place is one thing, enforcing them another. ANPPCAN reports that the courts managed last year to convict a mere 3.8 per cent of child rape cases. Existing systems seem inadequate even to prevent that other scourge—ritual child sacrifice—on which Ugandan media frequently report. Does it make sense in this context to divert limited police and judicial resources to a witch hunt against gays despite all the evidence that it is not them, but hetero men, who bring so much suffering to Ugandan women and families?

It is worth noting that rapists do not generally wear condoms. Given Uganda’s high incidence of rape and strong taboos on homosexuality it can be inferred that heterosexual rapists have been much more important HIV vectors than gay men.

Anathematising homosexuality in fact tends to legitimate male heterosexual aggression. How so? Simply, because it creates strong narratives of heterosexual entitlement and virility: all those guys determined to show that they are ‘real’ men—and egged on by the likes of Red Pepper’s noxious ‘Hyena’ column which so freely celebrates predatory male heterosexuality.

Sexual violence apart, Ugandan women, especially in rural areas, suffer deplorable health services. The country’s maternal mortality rate, at 435 deaths per 100,000 births, is one of the highest in the world. This is an aggregate figure: it is even higher in the poorest rural areas, where most women give birth at home without qualified help.

According to aid agencies, 62 per cent of Uganda’s clinics lack basic medicines and 65 per cent of health worker posts remain unfilled. Women suffer most from these gross service gaps because it is they who assume the main responsibility for family care and they who are generally last in the queue for medical attention.

And what if international donors, who supply more than one third of Ugandan government revenues, cut aid in response to the outcry over the Bahati Bill from their own citizens?

It is understandable that Ugandans should see this as bullying, a new form of cultural imperialism; and it is fair to point out that the West’s human rights halo is not looking so shiny after Switzerland’s overwhelming vote to restrict the religious freedoms of their minority Islamic population.

But donor governments are under real pressure from their own citizens and may be forced to trim aid that, in many cases, is tied precisely to targets such as improving health services. Who would be the losers here? Overwhelmingly, Ugandan women.

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