By Rosebell Kagumire
Its at dusk, a young woman is returning home outside the countryside town of Soroti. Crackling of military uniform and sound of army boots and gun butts by approaching patrol soldiers are heard. Wewe nani?(Who are you?) a thundering order comes through the darkness.
There is a sudden halt. The 28-year-old Grace Nakasi, a victim of an insurgency in eastern Uganda, is pulled off the road to the bush and gang-raped by the men in uniform.
I was living in Soroti town. One evening I was walking to the Senior Quarters where I lived. I met nine soldiers on patrol at about 7:00 pm. They all raped me and abandoned me by the roadside, Nakasi begins her story.
She was rescued by another group of soldiers and taken to hospital. The area was on high security alert because of the ongoing insurgency in the area at the time. Her assailants were never identified and arrested to answer for their crimes. She has never gotten justice.
This was 1987, a year after President Yoweri Museveni had captured the reigns of state power and announced a fundamental change, not mere change of guard. The heinous incident marked the dawn of repeated sexual violence against Nakasi and many other women in conflict areas
One night a year later, Nakasi received information that her parents had been killed by rebels. There was still a heavy presence of soldiers in the town, but the death of her parents could not allow her stay in her house.
I couldnt just sit back even though I knew the area was insecure. I decided to go to the bus park to take a bus to visit my home, Nakasi narrates with suppressed sadness. It was on the way to the bus park that Nakasi became a victim of the second rape.
I met four National Resistance Army (now UPDF) soldiers, two of them dragged me off the road and forced themselves on me, Nakasi said on July 21 at a meeting by Ugandan women groups under the support of ISS-Womens International Cross-Cultural Exchange on the sidelines of the AU summit in Kampala to draw attention of the meeting African leaders to sexual violence against women in post conflict era in Africa.
The soldiers left her unconscious. She was rescued by the patrol police late in the night.
Raped 16 times, infected with HIV and later thrown out of her marital home by the enraged husband, is the story of Nakasi, now 51 and a mother of 12 children from Soroti district. However its also a story of undying resilience and defiance that gives hope to the victims of an unjust society where the powerful subdue the powerless with impunity.
Its a touching narrative and a wider reflection of the tribulations women face in Africa’s conflict-torn regions. She is one of the faces of Ugandan women that carry the burden of sexual violence.
For the past decade Uganda has been applauded on the world stage as a successful story in the fight against HIV/AIDS having brought the prevalence down to a national average of 6.4 percent today from about 30% in the early 1990s. However this success story is not evenly reflective of the situation across all regions in the country. In war-torn regions like the north the surging sexual violence against women has distorted Uganda’s HIV/AIDS success story. Women trapped between government soldiers and the Lords Resistance Army rebels have borne the brunt of the HIV/AIDS more than any other women in the rest of the country.
Some districts in the north still have HIV infection rates as high as 11.9 percent, mostly among women. Girls as young as 3 years old and women of all ages have been raped over and over. The prevalent sexual violence by both the LRA and government soldiers has left behind a traumatised and stressed generation of women. But their story is hardly ever told to the public.
In 1990, Nakasi was again gang-raped by men whom she believes were government soldiers. These repeated rapes coupled with the loss of her two children to the war inflicted on her mental damage. She was admitted to Butabika Mental Rehabilitation Hospital in Kampala for several months after the rape incident.
In 2002, Nakasi took an HIV test. She tested HIV positive.
My husband knew that I had been raped and he never said much about it. But the day I told him I had tested HIV positive he threw me out of the house, Nakasi narrates in a tone of courage that has defied many odds. Her husband too had a similar test but he was found HIV negative. My in-laws said I had been promiscuous and thats why I had HIV even when they knew I had been raped several times, she says. The disclosure of her sero-status cost her the marriage. The husband chased her from the house and she sought shelter in a small thicket near her former homestead which became her new home for four years.
As she was still grappling with loss of her marriage and alienation form her family, vaginal fistula struck. Many rape victims suffer from vaginal fistula. Vaginal fistula comes about because of an opening between the vagina and another organ such as the bladder, urethra or rectum which culminates into incontinence either leaking urine or feces from the femal reproductive organ.
Nakasi was excommunicated from the community.
A ray of hope emerged in 2007. Nakasi was rescued by World Vision International which paid for her operation to remove her uterus which helps eliminate the fistula condition. After the treatment, she and other women, who are victims of sexual violence, started a support group- Teso Peace Womens Activists.
Once I had the operation I started approaching other women with HIV who had been rejected, she says, We would walk 32 miles to Soroti town to get medicine and also raise awareness.
What breaks my heart is seeing girls being abandoned after rape. I have an orphaned girl I care for who was raped when she was three years old. Her parents died in the war and now at nine no one wants to take care of her,â€ says Nakasi who has six orphans under her care.
After getting the operation, her husband accepted her back. He realised I was not going to die. And he took me back in the house although we continued to sleep in separate rooms, she said.
Nakasi’s story is not unique in Uganda’s war-ravaged communities. She told The Independent that about 40 women within just one sub-county of Tubur in Soroti where she works suffer from vaginal fistula due to rape. But they cant raise Shs400,000 (about US$200) for an operation.
Yet women who are victims of sexual violation especially in war times hardlyÂ get attention from policy makers. Nakasi and other HIV- positive women regularly walk many miles from Tubur to get life pronging drugs (ARVs). Economic powerlessness of the victims makes the situation worse and double stigma of rape and HIV hard to overcome.
Nakasi has managed to get funds from ISiS-Womens International Cross-Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE) and Urgent Action Fund Africa to help orphans by paying school fees for them, provide medicines to people living with HIV in her village. She also provides some paralegal services to victims of sexual violence.
I work with local council leaders and police to follow up perpetrators of sexual violence. I have managed to get one man sentenced for raping a child, Nakasi says.
The Isis-WICCE has released a report of stories of how sexual violence has affected women in Uganda, Liberia and Zimbabwe. According to the February 2010 study by ISIS-WICCE and researchers from Coventry University, there is little justice and medical care for the victims of sexual violence in areas affected by the LRA war.
Even after the war few cases are reported to the authorities partly due to a culture that does not treat sexual violence as a heinous crime and the matter is settled amicably between the accused and the abused. Another impediment to justice is lack of trust in the police due to corruption.
Gender based violence is high among discordant couples. If one is tested positive and the other is negative, men tend to blame women for bringing the virus, says Dominica Banire from Zimbabwe Women and AIDS Support Network.
The Nakasi story is microcosm of a much broader phenomenon prevalent in nearly all conflict-ridden countries on the continent. And women are usually the prime targets of sexual violence. But it also leads to an inevitable finding that sexual violence thrives most under situations of anarchy and lawlessness, which are direct by products of armed conflict.