Sitting in an inviting, freshly-painted room decorated with a small book exchange and a poster that reads “No More Silence,” Betty Benjamin, one of the co-founders of the GIRLY Network, a recently-established female-led NGO focusing on supporting victims of sexual violence, isn’t satisfied with the space just yet. Eventually, she wants it to be a space where survivors can find strength in one another during their respective healing processes, rather than an uninviting office space. “I want this to be a place for mending broken hearts,” she says.
According to the 2016 Ugandan Demographic and Health Survey, 22 percent of women in Uganda between the ages of 15 and 49 experience some form of sexual harassment every year, which translates to more than one million women being exposed to sexual violence in the course of a single year. Despite the fact that sexual violence in Uganda is longstanding and widespread, it is not something readily discussed, making it difficult to accurately quantify. Benjamin says, “everyone knows about sexual violence, but it’s like an open secret.”
Indeed, sexual violence is a highly taboo and stigmatized subject in Uganda, despite its prevalence and the deep, often irreparable impact that it has on survivors. Unfortunately, many survivors have to face the seemingly impossible decision of choosing between staying silent or speaking out and not being believed, even by those closest to them. For many women, speaking out often means facing social isolation, stigmatization, and name-calling, leading her to believe that the violence she endured is her fault. Furthermore, mental health services are not widely available in Uganda because they are currently not encouraged by cultural norms, so consequently counselors equipped to treat survivors of sexual violence are few and far between.
Sexual violence being an “open secret” has led to its normalization in Uganda. George Bush Ocen, a board member at the GIRLY Network, says, “In this society, women are subjected to certain activities [that], in a way, expose them to violence [...] Men think that if they find a woman in a bar, they have the right to do anything to her.” According to Benjamin, furthermore, some Ugandans still adhere to a cultural practice that calls for a man raping his future wife before she is married off. But even worse than the fact that sexual violence is normalized, Ocen says, is that it’s “moralized.”
Benjamin says, Ugandan society is deeply patriarchal and culturally conservative, inherently forcing women into a position of submission, inferiority, and vulnerability. Exposed legs are seen as justification for rape. Some cultural practices call for women to be raped before marriage in order for the future husband to prove his capability of dominance, and marital rape is generally considered to be a myth as women are expected to be prepared to serve as an object of sexual pleasure whenever their spouse desires. According to Benjamin, “Some people don’t believe that women are ever raped. For example, in the marriage, there is no way that a woman would say that she was raped by her husband. Women are trained to be like sexual beings. You are groomed to sexually satisfy a man, to bear children, to do all these things. That position that women were placed in made them extremely vulnerable. Everything was normalized.”
Images of masculinity also deeply affect cultural values and misconceptions. Many automatically question the manhood of Ocen, GIRLY Network’s only male board member, when they find out that he is involved in a female-led movement. He says, “[Men] think it’s a sign that you are not man enough because you are engaging with girl issues.”
For Ritah Namutamba, a native of the eastern-central Iganga region and another of the GIRLY Network’s co-founders, the decision about whether to speak out about her experiences is all too familiar, and one whose repercussions she’s been living with for nearly half her life. After being sexually assaulted by two of her family members as a teenager, she chose silence. “I knew it would break the family apart, which was already not strong enough,” she says. Instead, Namutamba has battled, more or less on her own, the emotional and psychosocial wounds that the incident inflicted for more than a decade.
Despite the enormous scope of sexual violence suffered by women, there is a pronounced lack of sexual violence-focused NGOs, and Namutamba immediately found herself frustrated with this state of affairs, unable to get the support that she needed. According to Namutamba, most organizations choose to focus on physical domestic abuse and gender-based violence instead of sexual violence more specifically, partially because cases of physical abuse are far easier to prove. As a survivor, however, Namutamba knew that what the community truly needed was a victim-centered, trauma-informed NGO. For many years before the GIRLY Network came to fruition, she dreamed of founding an organization from which she could have sought support when she herself was assaulted. It wasn’t until she joined the Nile Poetry Club, a local Monday night ritual at Sol View Café in Iganga, that she found a team equally passionate about sexual violence prevention and response. Indeed, through sharing their poetry on the topic of sexual violence, the founding team of GIRLY Network came together, united by a passion for survivors getting justice.
When the organization was just getting started, writing their constitution and registering as an NGO, an especially horrific assault occurred in Iganga. A young girl, only 12 years old at the time, was gang raped, and the perpetrators inserted an orange into her vagina. For Namutamba and her newly-formed team, this was the final straw and brought clearly into focus just what was at stake for their young organization. They immediately came together and organized the “No More Silence” campaign, centered around a march through Iganga town on December 16, 2018. Despite being organized only three weeks before it occurred, more than 600 people came out to show their support, most of whom simply joined the march as it snaked through town, moved by the message and palpable passion of its organizers.
After the march, the GIRLY team received an outpouring of positive responses. Benjamin notes that many of those coming to them afterward were evidently invested in this issue, whether from personal experiences or experiences of others close to them. She says, “Some people were asking really deep questions. You could really feel that this is not just a question; it has some sort of truth to it.”
Just as the #MeToo movement took over the United States in 2018, finally providing countless survivors with the courage to speak out, it seems that #MeToo is beginning to reach Uganda, where sexual violence is ingrained into the culture. With this movement, and the phenomenal female-led revolution fighting damaging cultural norms and gender inequality at the helm, sexual violence may finally begin to diminish in Uganda. Despite facing a deeply conservative, male-dominated government and enormous cultural and religious obstacles, these women remain unfazed and deeply motivated to end sexual violence once and for all. For Ocen, campaigns such as “No More Silence” are the signs of harmful cultural norms finally being dismantled. “If we talk about it, maybe it will start changing.”