Grace arrived at MIFUMI a bloody mess. She was in her underwear, only a lesu protected her modesty. Her back was covered in lacerations, her face swollen. She was more than worried about the 2 months old baby she was pregnant with.
Grace had been awakened in the wee hours of the morning when she heard raised voices outside her house. She was curious about what was going on and went outside to look. A scuffle had broken out. Her husband was in the clutches of men who would later be identified as one of his relatives. They beat and kicked him repeatedly. Before she could properly understand what was going on, Grace was pulled into the fight. They rained blows to her head, and beat her on her back and everywhere else with sticks. All the while, they shouted that she should take her belongings and leave.
Grace’s crime it later turned out, was that her in-laws did not like her ethnicity. After 10 years of marriage, they had come to show their brother that they did not like his choice of wife. They felt that the violence would kick her out for sure. Grace spent three days in the hospital because of this run in with her in-laws. After her hospitalization, Grace found refuge at the Haven, MIFUMI’s domestic violence shelter in Tororo.
A domestic violence shelter serves as a point of emergency crisis accommodation for women and children whose lives are at risk. It is a women-only space which provides refuge to survivors of domestic violence to protect them from further harm and reduce stigma while they access medical, legal, and psychosocial support services. Here, the principle of self-help is emphasized. The women do their own cooking and cleaning to create a sense of normalcy in a place that may sometimes feel isolated. Before a women leaves the shelter, a risk assessment is done to gauge the level of safety of resettling her back into her community. A woman may return to her relationship if she chooses to.
Domestic violence shelters are still a novelty in Uganda. Many times when women are beaten, they run to their parents and relatives for refuge. These relatives invariably send them back to their abusive spouses because they cannot afford to refund bride price or because leaving a relationship is seen as not just the woman’s failing but the family’s by extension as well. A shelter serves to break this cycle of violence to give women respite from abuse.
There are presently no more than 15 such shelters in Uganda. Ten are run by Action Aid in Amuru, Gulu, Lira, Nebbi, Katakwi, Kween, Kumi, Pallisa, Mubende and Kampala; four by MIFUMI in Tororo, Moroto, Mbarara, and Masaka; and one by Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) in Kamuli. Although some of the shelters are run in concert with the Ministry of Gender, none are directly funded by the government. The Domestic Violence Act Regulations, 2011 states that “where a police officer is satisfied that there is imminent danger of further violence against the victim, he or she shall refer the victim to the nearest shelter or recommend an alternative place of temporary abode.” With the exception of a few districts where the Local Government has offered space where the shelters can be set up, Government has made no direct effort to fill this gap. With the 2013 Annual Crime and Traffic/Road Safety Report putting cases of domestic violence at 3,426 and defilement at 9,589, it means that many survivors do not have a place to seek refuge as their cases are handled. For example, Action Aid’s busier shelters receive 3-10 survivors a day, numbers indicative of the high levels of violence in those areas and emphasizing the need for availability of gender based violence services.
Shelters are very important in protecting women who decide to leave relationships as statistics show that women are in most danger when they decide to leave. (Lees, 2000) In the U.S., 75% of homicides related to domestic violence occurred when the woman attempted to leave the relationship or after she had left. When a woman decides to leave, the perpetrator usually responds with more violence as he tries to re-exert his authority. In many situations therefore, many women stay in violent relationships because they see no way out as there are no support systems available. Grace, would have been rendered homeless, had there been no shelter available.
This shortage of services should compel the government to enact policies that prioritize provision of gender based violence services, the most important of which is domestic violence shelters which are an entry point to access this support.