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Domestic violence during the lockdown: Women and children have more to fear than the pandemic

Uganda, like most countries across the globe, have seen a drastic increase in domestic violence cases after adopting lockdown and stay-at-home measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. According to the Uganda Police Force’s Annual Crime Report for 2020, there was a 29% increase in reported domestic violence cases between 2019 and 2020. There was also a 16% increase in murders resulting from domestic violence between 2019 and 2020, which indicates the exacerbating effect of lockdown measures on volatile home situations.  According to Uganda Police Spokesperson Fred Enanga, this spike in numbers of domestic violence cases is unprecedented. Considering the fact that domestic violence cases often go unreported, the actual numbers of these are exponentially more than the 17,664 cases reported during 2020. 

So what is the link between a lockdown and domestic violence? And more importantly, what can be done to protect the thousands of women and children who are currently facing violence in their homes? 

Lockdowns, while effective at preventing the spread of highly contagious diseases, tend to create the conditions for ‘the perfect storm’ in terms of violence in the home. For one thing, the income of the majority of Ugandans are affected by these lockdown measures, since most of the informal sector businesses and ventures are prevented from operating. People employed in various industries, such as the hospitality and entertainment business, find themselves without work and those operating public transport means are prohibited from working. This lack of income places immense strain on family dynamics since basic needs cannot be met. Many women who earn a living within the informal sector have lost their means of provision for themselves and their children and have become dependent on their male partners or spouses. Another factor contributing to the violence is the fact that families are confined to their homes and are continuously faced with one another and their stresses and conflicts, which adds to the pressure within the home but also forces many women to tolerate the intolerable. 

Spouses feel like they have no life beyond the four walls of their homes and small problems are easily blown out of proportion. Many victims of domestic violence are trapped with their abusers. At the same time, the usual avenues that provide women and children who face violence in the home with protection and support are not available while strict lockdown measures are in place. The police, who are responsible for responding to domestic violence cases, are preoccupied with enforcing the lockdown measures and are unable to reach women in need in rural areas where they rely on public means. The courts are operating at a minimal capacity and are not accessible and available to grant restraining orders. Organizations offering psycho-social support, food, shelter and legal aid to domestic violence survivors are also limited in their movement and operations. Many of the support structures which women would normally rely on, such as their local women’s group or alternative accommodation provided by friends or relatives, cannot be accessed or convened in the context of a strict lockdown. Women and children in Uganda are thus faced with threats during the lockdown that are equally or more dangerous than the pandemic itself.

As a lawyer working with women and children facing domestic violence on a daily basis, I believe that there is much more that can be done on the part of the government and justice agencies in order to protect and serve victims of domestic violence during the pandemic. It is important that government recognizes all service providers supporting women and children who face domestic violence as ‘essential services’ which have to keep operating, even during a very strict lockdown. It is also important that government set up emergency shelters to provide temporary accommodation for women and children who find themselves in intolerable home situations. There is also need to strengthen the virtual justice system in local courts to ensure that justice is accessible to victims of violence without delay.

The plight of those who face domestic violence is of no less significance than the plight of those at risk of contracting COVID-19. Let’s stand together and call on our government to protect women and children from violence during the lockdown.

By Nandera Dorine,

Legal Officer, FIDA Uganda

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