Ending Sexual Violence in Uganda by Dispelling Myths

Unwelcomed attention or advances regarding sexual behavior. Requests for sexual favors. Verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature intended to create a hostile environment…Sexual violence can be defined in many ways because the term encompasses a spectrum of behaviors. In essence, any act that is sexual in nature, whether verbal or physical, that breaks a person’s trust, violates their safety, or impedes their autonomy is sexual violence. Sexual violence includes and is not limited to sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape, and can also encompass domestic violence and violence based on one’s sexual identity.

Sexual violence is also widely misunderstood by the general public. In my work on health education with Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project, I had the opportunity to talk about perceptions of sexual violence with many community members in Kanungu district in Uganda. Through facilitating community dialogues on health and education, I noticed several pervasive sexual violence myths. Eradicating sexual violence will require understanding and dispelling these myths.

Myth #1: Most sexual assaults are committed by strangers.

Over 90 percent of the people I spoke with stated a belief that rape and other types of sexual assault is always committed by someone whom the victim does not know. In fact, 60-80 percent of incidences of sexual assault and rape are committed by someone the victim knows, for example a relative, friend, or a neighbor according to the records from the police of Kanungu and Kisoro districts in the year 2016–2017. Eighty percent of reported child sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known and trusted by the child. The attacks occur most frequently in victim’s homes, according to police.

Meridah talking to Nyaka Primary School students about sexual assault.

Myth #2: Sexual violence does not exist in marriage.

Most people I spoke with expressed a belief that a husband or wife cannot sexually assault their partner. Young and old couples in Uganda, especially in Kanungu where I work and Kisoro where I was born, believe that if a spouse forces his or her mate to have sex, it is not a sexual assault and not a crime. In fact, Ugandan law is not decisive on whether or not spousal rape is a crime or a conjugal right.

Meridah chairing a meeting of community leaders sensitizing them on sexual assault in Bunyinya Village, Kanungu District.

Myth #3: Only women can experience sexual violence.

In my research and observations, most people I spoke with expressed a belief that only women are sexually assaulted. During meetings with community members, people argued passionately that the only people who are the victims of sexual assault are women. Women themselves said it is rare to hear of a man who was raped, while it is common to hear of women and girls who are sexually abused in many ways. The people I talked with told me that males are socialized to not appear vulnerable and not identify themselves as victims. Men who experience sexual assault are taught not to disclose their status in order to avoid embarrassment.

Another meeting with the community on sexual assault at Nyaka community Blue Rupin Library

Myth #4: Sexual arousal cannot occur in a situation involving sexual violence.

Many community members, both men and women, explained that they believed that sexual orgasm implies consent. They stated that if a person is not willing to have sex and happens to be raped, she/he cannot experience sexual arousal. In fact, a response of sexual arousal, including orgasm, does NOT mean that positive emotions were involved or that consent is implied. It simply means that the body reacted to the act of abuse with a natural biological response. To be clear, a person can have an erection or an orgasm when she/he is afraid.

Myth #5: Submission implies consent.

It was hard to convince the community members I spoke with that not all victims scream or fight back. Perpetrators of sexual violence often use fear as a primary weapon. Through threats of bodily injury or death, victims are often terrorized into cooperation or immobilized by fear. A victim does not have to have bruises, cuts, or any other physical injuries to prove that she/he has been sexually assaulted. Submission is not consent.

Myth #6: Perpetrators of sexual violence are easy to spot in a crowd.

Many people I met expressed a belief that those who commit sexual violence can be easily identified as people who look a certain way. The fact is that anyone — regardless of race, color, education level, gender, occupation, or socioeconomic status — can commit sexual violence.

Myth #7: Sexual assault only happens to other people.

Many people I came across had a belief that sexual assault could never happen to them. Throughout the year in Kanungu I overheard people say many times in meetings and events that they or their loved ones could never be raped. This is false. Our mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, girlfriends, neighbors, sisters, brothers, coworkers, and any of us can become a victim of sexual violence.

The Way Forward

In my experience, people who had the chance to be sensitized about sexual violence were grateful and promised to always report sexual violence cases to police and other authorities. Many community members felt that police and courts of law should ensure timely, thorough follow up on sexual violence cases in order to reduce the frequency of incidents over time.

Because sexual violence remains a threat, parents are advised to guard their children, especially young girls, by not sending them to buy things in trading centers when it is dark. Parents and children caretakers are encouraged to always leave children with people they trust, not strangers. Men are advised to report any acts of sexual violence committed against them, and to take part in ending sexual violence as the majority of the burden of the epidemic currently falls on women.

Ending sexual violence is not a women’s issue, but a human issue! It’s important to get men involved in being part of the solution. If you see something, say something! Stopping sexual violence is everyone’s business.
Meridah & her co-fellow Colton showing their support for gender equity.

Meridah Mukeshimana was a 2016–2017 Global Health Corps fellow in Uganda.

Global Health Corps (GHC) is a leadership development organization building the next generation of health equity leaders around the world. All GHC fellows, partners, and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. To learn more, visit our website and connect with us on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook.