The underreported stories on domestic violence against Women/Girls during the Covid-19 pandemic
By Atim Charlotte
Cases of domestic violence surged amid the COVID-19 pandemic affecting mostly women and girls. The spike can be attributed to the pandemic’s containment measures like the widespread lockdowns that accelerated rape, domestic abuse and defilement cases.
With many men losing their jobs and being confined at home, most women became the breadwinners of their families.
In general, gender-based violence remains existent in Uganda due to deeply rooted patriarchal attitudes toward the roles of women and men in society. The attitude given to such violence is constantly worrying because it is seen as a lower risk to the community. Consequently, the community requires gender-based violence victims to solve the cases privately.
Several entities, including the media, are now taking centre stage in spreading awareness about violence. The media plays a key role considering how they represent violence in their reportage, language, narrative, and the audience they reach. However, the media still has negative stereotypes about women, including sexism.
Although the world has made strides in addressing society’s perception, the image of women in the media has not changed in Uganda. There is insufficient attention to domestic violence, which is spotted in the unethical reporting of sensitive cases. With the rampant increase in domestic violence, the media only reported a quarter of these cases.
Interestingly, most media outlets used violent stories as click baits instead of focusing on their role of sensitising the audience. The media is well aware of their position, but most entities do not play a part in changing the situation where a woman is a victim in the hands of a man. Most perpetrators are spouses.
Due to the global nature of the pandemic, the news content was dominated by COVID-19 stories while ignoring the silent pandemic on domestic violence cases. Before lockdown, 46% of women experienced physical violence from their partners; the figure increased to 56% by the first week of the first phase of the lockdown in Uganda.
From March 31st to April, 328 domestic violence cases were reported to the police nationwide. In one week, the police in Kampala received 297 points, including 35 involving home desertion by husbands.
According to the Criminal Investigations Directorate, 10,280 cases of gender-based violence were reported from January to April 2020. These cases were domestic violence, defilement cases and rape cases and 86 per cent of the victims were women and girls.
With little mainstream media attention to domestic violence cases, social media was filled up with stories of women complaining of excessive sex demands from their husbands during the lockdown, an aspect that accelerated the violence.
According to the UBOS Report of 2021, most sexual violence cases were reported in the Acholi region, followed by Bukedi and Elgon. Physical violence prevalence increased to 22%, the highest in the Acholi region, while Busoga recorded the lowest share. Elsewhere, an intimate partner’s prevalence of physical and sexual violence was 56%.
According to the Uganda_RGA report, 2020, three in four people received information on gender-based violence since March 2020, including rape, defilement, sexual harassment, domestic violence, child marriage, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, emotional/psychological abuse and economic violence. Below are some of the sources of domestic violence information reported by Ugandan women. Radio, followed by TV, was the most popular GBV information source.
Due to the intense coverage of COVID-19, articles on health and medicine rose to the top of the list of most reported news and the least visible in the critical information where issues affect women. The absence of coverage of domestic violence against women and girls shows that such acts have been normalised through media coverage.
According to GMMP report 2020, major topics about gender and related issues, including violence against women in newspapers, were only (1%) across Africa.
The underrepresentation of domestic violence against women and girls, particularly during a health crisis when the cases were rampant, shows the media’s lack of respect for women. In print and broadcast news, women were only four out of 10 subjects and sources in stories of sexual harassment, five in other gender violence articles.
Comparing results of print, online and televised stories on various forms of gender-based violence against women, the most severe underrepresentation of women in sexual violence is in newspapers.
Other statistics show that in Uganda, gender and related topics are the least represented in the media, and it’s only reported on the radio, according to the graphic below.
Most media producers and writers were crafting sensualised stories about domestic violence against women within the available information.
For instance, NBS TV had a story with the headline; “Teenage girls in Kasese are exchanging sex for sanitary pads”.
The report of the teenage girls did not highlight the severe crime in the region of men defiling these victims, which should have been the main aim of the story. This story put these girls out for social castigation than the perpetrators.
The report required more media coverage because of the social problem since, in Kasese, there was an increase in defilement cases during the lockdown but not girls exchanging sex for sanitary pads.
Another case was on June 6th; NBS Television reported that over 60 girls who have been impregnated during the lockdown are likely to miss school in Luuka and Kaliro districts. The majority of the girls were between 13 and 15 years; however, the case was reported without comprehensively reporting.
Girls missing out on school is a serious issue, and the media shouldn’t take it lightly. However, there was a need for calling out the perpetrators. In October 2021, the media also started covering the trail of a male medical student who murdered his girlfriend.
There was little coverage when the girl was murdered in July 2015. However, when the case was highlighted in 2021, the media dramatically paid more attention.
In October 2020, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni also waged the sexual violence situation in Uganda.
“When children get pregnant, it is okay at least they are still alive, Pregnancy doesn’t kill, it causes some problems, but it is not the same as dying,” said Museveni.
His sentiment came after stakeholders were advocating for the reopening of schools, arguing that there were increased cases of sexual violence that had left many teenage girls pregnant during the lockdown. The President undermined the number of girls dropping out of school due to pregnancy. The head of the state’s stand was also given little media coverage.
The media also gave more attention to severe crimes like homicide or attempted homicide which they generally consider more newsworthy than other forms of domestic violence. The front-page headlines are mainly given to murder stories than cases of rape or physical abuse against women on print media.
Victims lack counselling services, especially in rural areas, despite the increased number of domestic violence cases during the lockdown. On June 10th 2020, NTV Uganda reported the outcry by organisations working on violence against women and the police on the need for counselling services and psychosocial support for victims.
In general, the media in Uganda can effect change. It is a priority area for action on preventing violence against women. They need to improve on the way they engage on this issue. They need to treat domestic violence against women as a social problem rather than an accident or tragedy.