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Gender-Based Violence, an in Person Encounter in Uganda

In 2020, “Uganda reported the highest number of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) cases in East, Central and Western Africa with 60% of girls and young women aged between 13 to 24 years having experienced one or more types of violence in childhood.  In the same report, 72% of Uganda’s young population (aged 18–24 years) have also experienced one or more types of violence before the age of 18 while 25% of young women in Eastern Africa justify a husband beating up his wife” – Increasing cases of Gender-Based Violence in East Africa.

I want to confess at the start I’m afraid to share this story. There were numerous immediate judgement calls throughout the encounter and I don’t know that we always made the right choice. However, if nothing else, it speaks to the prevalence of the problem and for that I’m choosing a little bravery at the risk of potential criticism. I’m not saying our actions were correct, or that we shouldn’t have done more, just describing the situation as we experienced it. Please know that it was difficult and no doubt you, dear reader, would have chosen better in the moment but I’m sharing anyway.

It was after 10 PM with no moon. We (Sean, Phil, and I) were about 30 minutes from the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest when we drove past a couple when the woman, somewhat quietly, pleaded for help through our open car window. Sean heard the plea and asked if she was okay. She was around 18 and the man holding her was perhaps in his early 20s. We hesitated but soon stopped the car and stepped out requesting the man to let her go. He refused, claiming she was his wife and wouldn’t let go. (Obviously being her husband doesn’t give any right to forcibly hold her like he was, but the man was drunk and there was a huge language barrier between us.) The couple crossed the dirt road and we stepped toward them. However, the man would not let go. We tried talking but there was essentially no communication due to the apparent language barrier. We suggested he just stop and let her go so we could talk, but he refused. There was more struggling and us peacefully but physically trying to free her. Everything we tried verbally was completely ignored.

The couple backed up to a wood hut and Sean took one arm while I took the other in the hopes of freeing her. However, his grip on her purse was relentless and she wouldn’t let her purse go. Shortly afterwards, additional men appeared and he seemed to be insinuating to them that we were stealing his wife. Yikes!! What is going on? Dang-it, I don’t speak the language. The man then told us that we could have her but it would be 3,000,000 UGX (about 900 USD). What? Are they seriously implying that we are trying to steal her?

We backed away trying to avoid anyone really getting hurt and she freed herself and ran behind Phil. However, the “husband” grabbed her again and wouldn’t let go this time. There were now a total of five men, all in the low 20s, and drunk. A couple of them grabbed tree branches and stripped off the shoots to create poles which they started swinging at us wildly, occasionally connecting with a hit or a kick.

With the threatening sticks we ended up separated, with the men and the woman on the other side from us. I tried taking one of them aside and talking with him but regardless of what I said, he replied with “go away.” The situation was degrading fast. I so wish the woman had run once she got free but how was she to know that?

The “husband” said something to the woman about knowing that the woman’s stuff was in his house? (Why was this in English? Did he understand more than he let on?) Even if we could free her, what happens tomorrow or the day after? Is she going to be punished worse because we were involved?

They started moving away and a couple of them took the upper road, looking down on us. They started hurtling rocks. They loudly hit the tin roof of the hut or skidded on the road, but they were all wild throws – not surprisingly given their inebriated stated.

With rocks flying past we decided to get in the car. But as we headed in the direction, the man held the woman’s body while two of his buddies lifted her legs and carried her back up the road. Stink! There is no circumstance where that behavior is okay. With the two other men guarding with additional rocks, what were we supposed to do? Should we do everything in our power even if it involves violence or bodily harm? If they are using physical force, does that justify it for us given their violence against the woman? After all, from everything we can tell, she is being forcibly held against her will, but we are also being accused of stealing her.

We drove down the hill, mostly in silence. We felt horrible not knowing what might happen. Even if we could help, would it make it worse in the long run? I don’t know. It’s so frustrating that we don’t speak the language.

15 minutes later, at the bottom of the hill, we reached a road block and spoke with a military guard who called the police. However, the police didn’t have a vehicle and would take more than an hour to reach the location. The guard eventually agree that we give him a ride to the location. Of course, after 30 minutes, the chance of finding them at night was miniscule, exacerbated because we were in very steep and dense terrain. Regardless, the hope seemed worth the attempt.

Once we returned there was no one associated with the events in sight. We went up the road 200 ft. and the guard asked those milling around if they had seen anything, but the response was in the negative. Briefly we saw someone hiding in the bushes and the guard (who was carrying a rifle) lunged at him but the man disappeared into the bush down a steep embankment. So frustrating!!!!!

In the end all we could do was take the guard back to his post and hope that there would be follow up in the morning and the real truth would be told, not some story about us trying to steal the woman.

April 23 Update:

Sean chose to take a detour towards the same area rather than drive directly to Kampala. He had some contacts in security and reached out to them for help. Even though it is almost a week later, here’s what he had to report:

“People talk – so believe it or not – it looks like the police here are gonna find the guys. This cheeky old man I came across had heard all about it and connected me with the police (their place is 1 km up the other road) and provided two of their names and locations. Anyways, more progress than I expected. I’ll keep you posted.
I pulled off and this Mzee (older man) came walking past me – spoke good English so I chatted with him. He is the main guy’s neighbor and overheard them when they got back that night and the next morning. Knew all the details. The guys were all hiding in the bushes and saw us with the soldier when we came back. The woman got taken back to the house, but left the next morning.

The Mzee is going to communicate with her and help her make a statement. I have all the numbers of the police and will follow up.
It was a long shot, but I’m stoked I was able to get the wheels turning to hopefully provide some protection for her moving forward.”

In the end, could we have done better? I’ve gone over it a thousand times and there isn’t a clearly better approach that I can think of. Suggestions? Perhaps if we had more swiftly freed her before others arrived but we were still trying to find a peaceful solution.

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