Answering the Hard Questions: Talking Our Way to a Violence Free World

“Do men in your country hurt women too?” a survivor of domestic violence turned to me and asked. As we exchanged long gaze, a sword of sadness pierced my heart. The short answer was yes. The long answer requires more than one blog entry, but I will try.

The pain in a survivor’s eyes looks the same whether you are standing in a fully equipped sexual assault center in the United States of America or under a tree in a rural village in Uganda. Since moving to Uganda six months ago, I have been asked a version of the question above multiple times. This is in part because I am working for MIFUMI, a gender-based violence (GBV)* prevention organization. I interact closely with survivors on a regular basis as part of my work with the organization’s health and women’s advice centres.  When answering such questions, I envision all survivors living in the US flowing into the streets yelling, “Yes we exist!”

The question is hard because the undertones run deep and are painful. The inquiring survivor’s eyes yearn for validation that not just Ugandan women suffer. However, once I confirm that American women experience domestic violence too, a shift occurs. The response they were waiting for seems to bring unexpected, uneasy emotions. The problem has seemingly grown larger and scarier than before. The thought process being, if American women suffer from violence too, when will the abuse cease to exist anywhere – if ever? In reality, the USA does a poor job of advocating for their GBV survivors – aggressive court proceedings, pathetic options for rehabilitating survivors and perpetrators, and out-dated legal mandates which often favor perpetrators. I argue that there are lessons the States can learn from Uganda.

I acknowledge the prevalence of domestic violence is higher in Uganda than in the USA. In the States, nearly one in four (25%) women report experiencing Domestic Violence in their lifetime (Centre for Disease Control, 2008). That means if you are American, you know multiple survivors and perpetrators – or perhaps you are one of the two. In Uganda, three in five (60%) of women say they had ever experienced physical domestic violence. More than half of these women had experienced physical domestic violence in the past 12 months (Demographic and Health Survey, 2006).

However, the high prevalence in Uganda sparks dialogue – newspaper articles, radio talk shows, television adverts, billboards, and good ol’ face to face conversation. In the States, GBV hides shivering under the rug – a country too proud to have such devastating problems. More than once I have tuned my radio dial to Uganda’s pop station to find a segment on domestic violence. Never once have I heard a top 40 station in the US discussing such issues. This is not because listeners tuned in don’t experience GBV. Rather, women (and men, I acknowledge) suffer from domestic violence across the world – from the un-paved road outside of MIFUMI’s health centre to New York City’s Upper East Side, domestic violence exists. It does not discriminate. The color of your skin, degrees you hold, or cars you drive do not function as body guards against violence.

While I wish that MIFUMI’s rural health centre was as heavily resourced as the sexual assault centre I volunteered with in DC, our health centre and Uganda at large have something to teach the States. Talk. Talk loudly and often. Answer the hard questions. And then do something too few people do – ask back. Ask what do the survivors and at-risk populations in your community think we can do to eliminate gender-based violence. They have ideas, good ones. Acknowledgement and awareness of gender-based violence, in the USA and Uganda, is the first step in moving toward its prevention. So, start a conversation. Create dialogue for change.

*Gender-based violence: Violence involving men and women, in which the female is usually the victim; and which is derived from unequal power relationships between men and women (United Nations Population Fund, Gender Theme Group, 1998).