In January, social media was awash with allegations of sexual assault and rape. The discussion was polarizing. For many women, it was a long-overdue discussion that proved right what they had been saying all along about the pervasiveness of sexual violence. On the other hand, many referred to it as an effort to defame and bring men down. One thing was clear: the issue of rape and sexual violence against women isn’t being treated with the seriousness it deserves.
Rape is defined in the Penal Code Act as the unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman or girl without her consent, or if the consent is obtained by force means of threats or intimidation of any kind or by fear of bodily harm, or by means of false representations as to the nature of the act, or in the case of a married woman, by personating her husband.
In court, in order to obtain a rape conviction, the prosecution has to prove three things: that there was sexual intercourse with a woman capable of giving consent; that the sexual intercourse occurred without her consent and that the accused participated in the commission of the offence.
It is interesting to note that for the longest time courts in England, and by colonial extension, those in Uganda, required the judge to warn himself or herself of the danger of convicting an accused person on the uncorroborated evidence of a complainant in cases involving sexual offences against women. The rationale was that women are liars and are prone to making false accusations. In the case of R v Henry & Manning (1969) 53 Crim. Appeal Rep 150, Lord Salmon famously held,
“What the judge has to do is to use clear and simple language that will without any doubt convey to the jury that in cases of alleged sexual offences it is really dangerous to convict on the evidence of the woman or girl alone. This is dangerous because human experience has shown that in these courts girls and women do sometimes tell an entirely false story which is very easy to fabricate, but extremely difficult to refute. Such stories are fabricated for all sorts of reasons, which I need not enumerate, and sometimes for no reason at all.”
Even though this clearly sexist and misogynist rule was later held by Ugandan courts to be without any logical or scientific basis and discriminatory against women, it is still extremely difficult for women to have their assaulters convicted because of the pervasiveness of rape culture and the system of patriarchy from which it was born.
Patriarchy can be defined as a system that upholds the male sex as superior and relies on the oppression and subjugation of women to maintain this superiority. This system which thrives on the oppression of women breeds rape culture. Rape culture can be defined as the practice of ignoring or trivialising sexual assault, rape, and incidents of sexual violence. The patriarchy has enabled men to hold positions of power in almost all spaces which, coupled with rape culture, allows them to commit acts of sexual violence against women with almost no consequences.
The trivialization of sexual violence makes it incredibly difficult for victims to go through the process of obtaining justice. This is because the system of patriarchy is always looking for the “perfect” rape victim. It is very common for victims to be asked questions like ‘what were you wearing?’ and ‘what were you doing at his place?’ yet these have no bearing on the very important issue of consent. Questions like these are diversionary and are only meant to silence victims.
If victims are courageous enough to report cases of sexual violence to the police, they are often re-traumatized by investigations and hostile court proceedings which often seek to discredit the complainant rather than obtaining justice. It is no wonder that many survivors of sexual assault would rather keep their experiences to themselves instead of reporting the incidents to the authorities.
Another issue that is constantly brought up when women decry the lack of urgency in handling cases of sexual violence is that men are also victims of sexual assault. While this is true, it is also true that the patriarchy which upholds men as all-powerful refuses to see them as victims of sexual assault and makes it hard for them to seek help.
According to the Uganda Police Force Annual Crime Report of 2019, a total of 15, 638 sex-related crimes were registered, out of which 6,605 cases were taken to court, 1102 cases secured convictions, 76 cases were acquitted, 523 cases were dismissed while 4903 cases were still pending in court. A total of 15,706 persons were victims of sex-related crimes out of whom 13,536 were female juveniles, 278 were male juveniles, 1,829 were female adults and 63 were male adults.
The above information shows that women and girls are overwhelmingly more prone to being victims of sexual violence. The disparity in the number of sex-related crimes being registered as compared to those which are taken to court points to the difficulty faced by victims who seek justice. This is brought about by the victim-blaming attitude our society maintains towards women who suffer sexual violence.
Rape culture is part of the Ugandan culture and is normalized in our daily interactions. Jokes about sexual assault and obtaining sexual ‘payment’ for things like a meal or a drink are rife. It is time for men to be reminded that they are not entitled to women’s bodies for any reason and that nothing will ever justify rape or other sexual offences. There needs to be a shift in the culture which moves from viewing women as objects for men’s entertainment to acknowledging their humanity and individuality.
“Protect women not reputations”