Issue 36 - Article 5

Beating wives and protecting culture: violent responses to women's awakening to their rights

January 10, 2007
Khristopher Carlson and Dyan Mazurana, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University

As part of their research in Kitgum in 2006, described in the preceding article, the Tufts team also sought to gain a better understanding of the physical threats facing women and girls living in or near IDP camps. The study team found that domestic violence against women was widespread in all the camps visited. The most common form of domestic violence is male heads-of-household beating wives or female domestic partners. The most common injuries women sustain from domestic violence include broken or dislocated arms and legs and cuts to the face, neck and upper body. These injuries are inflicted by strikes with bare hands, machetes, firewood, chairs, knives and other sharp objects. Respondents claimed that beatings were frequent in the camps (women were heard being beaten between one and ten times each week). Children were less frequently beaten, and sustained fewer injuries than women. The most serious injuries to children, including death, reportedly occur when they try to protect their mothers from domestic abuse.


Causes of domestic violence


In the absence of monitoring and reporting systems, actual rates of domestic violence in the camps are unknown. However, it seems clear that they are high. The reasons for these high rates vary according to interviewees, with women, local council officials and clan leaders giving substantially different answers. The majority of female interviewees attributed the beatings to male drunkenness coupled with strict patriarchal customs imposing subservient behaviour upon women. One woman in Agoro told us: ‘Drunkards beat their wives. Also, if they don’t find their food ready or if a woman talks or responds while a man is talking they can be badly beaten’.


Interviews with local council officials living in camps confirm that male drunkenness plays a role in beatings. Other factors cited include the breakdown of Acholi culture and the collapse of inter-generational transmission of traditional values to young people. Additionally, beatings were said to be a result of women increasingly challenging patriarchal household structures by ‘no longer acting as housewives should’.


Many clan leaders and council officials interviewed condoned and even justified the beating of women. Some beatings were justified on the grounds of a ‘poor work ethic’ on the part of women in maintaining the household. Alleged transgressions included failing to cook food on time, do laundry, fetch water, collect firewood, garden and discipline children properly, leaving the house without the husband’s permission, coming home late, sleeping in the daytime or being drunk. Clan leaders and local officials stated that beatings were also justified when a woman’s behaviour towards her husband was deemed offensive. Women confirmed this, and added that they were also being beaten for refusing to have sex. The majority of women felt that men had no right to beat them, regardless of the grounds.


Clan leaders, in particular, advocate for women to adhere to strict codes of behaviour based on traditional, patriarchal values and practices. Women violating these codes within their households are seen as threatening to the patriarchal and traditional power relations within the clan, and ‘Acholi culture’ as a whole. The assertion by clan leaders that unruly women are a threat to cultural norms reflects more than a simple desire to control female behaviour in the household. Clan leaders are relatively marginalised within camps, with their roles reduced to preserving cultural norms and serving as advisors on and advocates for Acholi custom. They are threatened by outside influences, in particular by the Ugandan government and international organisations that challenge the foundations of patriarchal authority and power at the clan level. One clan leader explained the reasons for women’s ‘un-Acholi behaviour’ as follows: ‘[The government] is coming in and telling women they have rights, and that they can do what they want and not do things when their men tell them to be done’. Another clan leader explained that the behaviour of women resulted, not only in domestic violence, but also in the break-up of households. Men leave their wives because the women are ‘unruly’, hence creating female-headed or single households: ‘Because of the big-headed women there are female-headed households within the camp … The men tell them to take their rights and leave and so they end up living alone in their own households’.


Seeking assistance, protection and redress: local responses to domestic violence


Victims of domestic violence often must work with and through local courts and clan leaders when seeking assistance, protection and resolution. Local councils, clan leaders and the police all play a role in responding to domestic violence, although they do not necessarily uphold the rights of the victim.


Local councils within IDP camps can represent a village, parish or sub-county, and are linked into the national justice network. Within the camps, a local council has jurisdiction only over those people originally from its pre-displacement area or region. Where serious injury is involved, the councils refer cases to the local police. The local council system can handle cases that do not include serious injury (including domestic violence) and make rulings. Sometimes, these rulings involve beatings and/or fines as punishments against the party deemed responsible for the initial dispute.


In addition to the local council system, victims of domestic violence may seek help from the clan system and clan leaders. Where intra-clan affairs are concerned, clan leaders traditionally hear disputes regarding domestic violence or killings, and may call for compensation to be paid to the aggrieved party, or punishments for offenders. These clan-based reconciliatory methods operate outside formal legal systems, and perpetrators avoid formal penalties such as jail sentences.


When a woman brings a case of domestic violence to a clan leader or a local council, these leaders determine (through witness testimony or otherwise) which party instigated the violence, and whether the woman committed offences warranting the violence inflicted on them (such as ‘un-Acholi’ behaviour). If the woman is found to be at fault she may be punished and beaten. Thus, a woman in Labuje camp who was beaten by her husband was found guilty of instigating the quarrel; her beating was thus justified. The local council also ruled that she had lied about the incident, and so was punished both for starting the domestic quarrel and lying about it to the council.


In many areas of Kitgum, it is necessary to provide payment, or compensation, to council officials and clan leaders to hear disputes. Often, this payment is made in alcohol (one council representative in Pager told us that waragi, the local liquor, was ‘beneficial for everyone – it helps us think more clearly and gives us more ideas’). It is therefore possible that a woman beaten by a drunken husband will herself have to buy or brew alcohol to ‘pay’ for her case to be heard.


Local councils and clan leaders also set punishments for the man if he is found guilty of domestic violence. In Labuje and Agoro, for example, guilty men are beaten, despite the fact that the use of corporal punishment by councils, clan leaders and/or the police is illegal under Ugandan law. Some respondents told us that women who brought and won cases against men were subsequently exposed to more violence in retaliation. The threat of greater violence has made some women reluctant to bring cases forward. As one woman in Pager explained:


At times if a woman is beaten, you can forward the case to the elders who summon the husbands … Sometimes if [the husbands] are found guilty they are told to lie down and they are caned. Sometimes they refuse [to be caned] and go back and really beat the wives. So, because this happens a lot, most of us have stopped reporting … Because once this happens the leaders just give up and nothing more is done so the men are even worse.


Injuries and medical assistance


Women described a number of factors affecting their ability to access medical assistance after domestic violence. In Agoro, the best option for women is the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinic, where staff are trained to respond to domestic and sexual violence. MSF outreach workers are seeking to raise awareness in the community of gender-based and sexual violence, but admit that they lack adequate resources to address the problem. If injuries are serious, MSF staff take victims to the government hospital in Kitgum town. In Orom, violent incidents must be reported to a council official or camp leader. This official then produces a letter, which the injured person must present to medical staff in order to receive assistance. If a letter is not obtained, the victim must be accompanied to the government or MSF clinic by her attacker to verify the source of the injuries. Women reported that a woman with life-threatening injuries without an official letter or her abuser to corroborate her testimony might only be asked where she would like to be buried if she succumbs to her injuries.




Domestic violence represents a significant threat to the rights and human security of women and girls, and should be vigorously and systematically addressed by local and national authorities, civil society organisations, NGOs, UN agencies and donors. Currently, governmental and international responses to domestic violence are inadequate. Meanwhile, clan systems and local councils are operating without regard to Ugandan constitutional and national law. Response mechanisms are almost entirely at the local level, and many of these avenues discourage reporting and can exacerbate violations.


Efforts to address the problem of domestic abuse should focus on educating local councils and clan leaders on constitutional and national laws regarding women’s and girls’ rights, and their entitlement to be free from violence and enjoy uninhibited access to support, including medical and legal assistance. The Ugandan government must respect its obligations to promote and protect women’s and girls’ rights as a party to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), the Additional Protocol to the ACHPR on the Rights of Women and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Medical staff and international NGOs are also obliged to report domestic violence, and to treat anyone injured by it.


It is equally important that women have access to information about their rights, including the right to remain free from violence, and know how to put their rights into practice. As a result of the conflict in Northern Uganda, women have taken on numerous roles that were previously denied them. This, combined with the influx of organisations promoting the rights of women and children, means that women are increasingly alive to their rights, capacities and responsibilities. These changes are, at times, met with violence at the hands of men. Establishing meaningful and respectful dialogue with clan and traditional leaders will be an important starting point in changing attitudes.


Finally, within crowded IDP camps, domestic violence rarely goes unnoticed given the close proximity of people’s homes. Because of this, there is greater chance of intervention by neighbours, and hence rates of domestic violence are said to be lower than or equal to pre-displacement levels. As people return to villages where homes are traditionally distanced from each other, efforts to prevent and address domestic violence will face greater challenges in reporting, monitoring and response. In addition, as people continue to leave camps and village communities re-establish themselves, the process of influencing patriarchal norms so as to stop domestic violence will become more difficult. Consequently, strategies of advocacy to stop violence against women and to implement women’s rights need to consider both the camp and village environments if they are to help foster shifts in attitudes towards domestic violence.


Khristopher Carlson, LLM ( is a Senior Researcher at the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, Medford, MA. Dyan Mazurana, PhD (, is Research Director at the Center.


Comments are available for logged in members only.