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Challenging the Normalisation of Sexual Violence

I wish to see a community that is well accepting to the victims of sexual violence especially the girl-child such that if at all anything has happened to them; they can feel comfortable telling their parents or authorities and the community fully accepts and supports the victims without judging them”, advocates a young charismatic Betty Nantongo who has chosen to rise up against sexual violence in her community through the #NoMoreSilence Campaign.

Betty Nantongo fronting the #NoMoreSilence Campaign in Iganga, a town in Eastern Uganda.

Imagine living in an area surrounded by absolute poverty, where drivers of goods from one country to another stop over to entertain themselves in bars and a place that breeds alarming statistics of sexual violence against girls and women in the whole country. Whereas you’re just imagining this place, this comes as a reality to Betty Nantongo; one youthful individual who has decided to stand up and challenge everyone to act together to mitigate the giant social evil of gender sexual violence that is wholly engulfing her community. This place is Iganga District, a region that lies on the Eastern side of Uganda with a population of 45,024 people.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines sexual violence as: “Any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic or otherwise directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.” The World Health Organisation (WHO) also showed from their multi-country study that women reported that their first sexual intercourse were forced and this is true for a substantial proportion of young women. More than 20 girls are raped every day in Uganda but the silence continues. According to the CID records of Iganga Police Station, 148 sexual violence cases have been reported from January to May 2018.

30th November 2018 saw the vulnerability of one 12year old Caroline Nangobi (not real names) being taken advantage of by a group of boys that captured and sexually assaulted the little girl as she went to the field alone to fetch their feeding cow as ordered by her grandmother. Weak and overpowered, there was not much she could do! The assaulters took advantage of the situation then later, as if it was not enough, pushed a big orange fruit with sticks into her bruised private part. She only faintly saw their backs as they left and could consciously tell of the bizarre story on her treatment bed in Nakavule hospital Iganga a few days after; weak and dizzy from the loss of quite a huge amount of blood and dire pain! Just like that, she joined the many untold rape cases in this district.

When this story reached Betty, it became her wake up call. Ever since she moved to Iganga town four years back from Kampala; many of her female friends shared about the life they were living in and the major difficulty they experienced was abuse from either their family members or the community. Some of them even got babies as a result but could not even have the courage to speak to their parents in fear of being blamed, judged and being chased from home. When she narrated the story of the 12-year-old (the above story about Caroline Nangobi) to all her friends who had shared similar scenarios, their only concession was to publicly come out and act in response to the insecurity and vulnerability of women in their community through a peaceful walk in the same vulnerable community to challenge the norm of sexual violence in their area and the entire country. The belief that rapists are not born rapists but rather constructed by social cultural attitudes which shape their identity and motivate their violent actions; became something that the campaign is up against.

The major objective the campaign is to create awareness in the community about why sexual violence needs to stop and also encourage the victims to speak out or even report their assaulters to concerned authorities. The campaign did not only stop in the Iganga community but is also boosted on social media platforms using the hashtag #NoMoreSilence.

In spearheading this campaign, Betty and her whole team targeted to;

  1. show that Sexual violence is a crime that Must be stopped.

  2. break the silence about sexual violence in the community.

  3. advocate for establishment of structures and organisations that support victims.

  4. advocate for justice of the victims from the perpetrators.

  5. bring to limelight sexual violence inequalities especially rape among women and girls.

  6. advocate for a judgemental free environment for sexual violence survivors.

  7. give survivors a chance for their voice and stories to be heard.

Despite the fact that this is a powerful community cause, obstacles presented themselves for the kind-hearted face of this campaign; Nantongo Betty has to fight through many difficulties to make the campaign against sexual violence possible. Demotivation came in when the people (authorities) they had thought would forefront the campaign became barriers to the heroine call to action. The district officers didn't want to join the #NoMoreSilence campaign amidst threatening to disapprove the campaign. The Police also refused to grant permission for the campaign to happen until last minute even after the team had clearly explaining to them the above objectives of the campaign. The team also had to continue preparations amidst financial constraints.

With the help of the Local Council 5 officer who bears witness of the previous great community works Betty had engaged in with Hangout Foundation, Out of Comfort Zone among other social cause organisations in the area that she had volunteered with, the LC5 chairperson helped the campaign organisers to be granted permission from Uganda Police and carry on with their intended community activity. Other organisations like Straight Talk Foundation, 256 Youth Platform, Musana Community Development Organisation to mention but a few came on board and simplified the financial constrain.

While the whole world was ending the 16 Days of Activism, Betty and her entire team spread-out to engage Iganga community members to join them and unite to fight against sexual harassment and violence.

The major message that was sent out during the walk mostly encouraged rape victims to speak out and break the silence! To make the communication clear, some posters were written in “Lusoga” (a local language mostly understood by the settlers in Iganga district in Eastern Uganda.

Many stop overs were done to interact with random people of different tribes, religion, race and gender in this community to enlighten them on how they can support rape victims as well as join the cause to break the silence against rape and sexual harassment cases in all communities that they belong to.

The walk engaged all parts of the community from the busiest to the least approached areas to ensure that the whole town was engaged in this campaign. The youths, elderly, adolescents, mothers and all capacities that make up the Iganga community were called upon to join the cause because the social evil of sexual violence does not discriminate! It swallows anybody that it finds unfortunate.

Towards the close of our interview with Nantongo Betty, she informed us that she intends to spearhead another campaign next year 2019 in the month of creating awareness about sexual violence; April still focusing on breaking the silence on sexual violence, educating the community more about the topic. A few organisations that work to support the sexual violence victims and fight for human rights agreed to collaborate and make contacts brochures which will be freely given out to community members such that organisations to be approached and reported to for such cases are known and accessed easily in the meantime.

She urged the Uganda Police to act and take sexual harassment cases seriously. In many scenarios it has been reported that police ignore the victims who can’t afford to pay for their services. The government should also revise the punishments they give to assaulters since the existing ones seem not to correct their evil ways and they come back to the community from the police custody with the same vices making young girls and women vulnerable all over again.

Among the other things that Betty recommends are the Behavioural Change Programs in police prisons for assaulters, district offices especially those in charge of child protection working with parents to support the victims to provide counselling, encouragement, providing resettlement homes to rehabilitate the assaulted victims from trauma after getting treatment from hospital before they are returned to their real homes or area where they faced the bizarre.

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