Skip to main content

Hon. Edward Kiwanuka Ssekandi
Speaker of the Parliament of Uganda
P.O.Box 7178, Kampala
Via Post and e-mail (

Re: Domestic Relations Bill and Marital Rape

Your Excellency:

We write to urge you to ensure that the Domestic Relations Bill (DRB) is debated during the current parliamentary session, and to support its enactment and implementation. The recent delay of the debate on this bill is a worrying signal, suggesting that Uganda is failing to see clearly the catastrophic consequences of women’s inequality in the family and is not taking seriously enough its international commitments to respect and promote women’s and girls’ human rights, including their equality in the family.

Our own research in Uganda demonstrates the critical link between violence against women, particularly spousal rape, and women’s vulnerability to HIV infection. “Just Die Quietly: Domestic Violence and Women’s Vulnerability to HIV in Uganda” (August 2003) documents how domestic violence puts and gender inequality women at risk of HIV and impedes their access to HIV information, testing, and treatment. More recently, “The Less They Know, the Better: Abstinence-only HIV/AIDS Programs in Uganda” (March 2005), documents the recent removal of critical HIV/AIDS information from school curricula, including information about the risks of HIV in marriage. These reports underscore the importance of protecting women’s and girls’ equality in the family, under the law, and in practice, in part by ensuring that domestic violence does not interfere with their access to full and accurate HIV information and services.

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about the hostility of some parliamentarians to the provision on marital rape in the DRB. We understand that some lawmakers oppose this provision because it could “break up families,” or because they believe marital rape does not exist. Based on our extensive interviews, we can assure you that not only does marital rape exist, but it is rampant and clearly linked with HIV infection and lack of access to HIV information and services. For example, we interviewed Hadija Namaganda (a pseudonym), who tested positive for HIV in 1994. For years, her husband had routinely forced her to have unprotected sex with him and beat her viciously. Himself HIV positive, he once attacked her so violently that he bit off half of her left ear. When he lay dying of AIDS and was too weak to beat her anymore, he ordered his younger brother to beat her for him. Namaganda believes she was infected by her husband.

As you know, in sub-Saharan Africa, heterosexual sex is the dominant mode of HIV transmission. Women in marriages and long-term unions are not safe from HIV: recent studies in Kenya and Zambia found that HIV rates were 10 percent higher among married young women than among their unmarried counterparts. Domestic violence, which affects approximately 40 percent of Uganda’s women and girls, is a central cause of HIV exposure in marriage. Domestic violence limits women’s capacity to resist sex and to insist on their spouse’s fidelity or condom use. A recent South African study found significantly higher rates of HIV infection in women who were physically abused, sexually assaulted, or otherwise mistreated by their intimate male partners.

As a party to international and regional treaties protecting women’s human rights, Uganda has an obligation to ban marital rape. Treaties which Uganda has ratified and declarations it has supported state that women’s equality includes their right to sexual autonomy. Under international law, women have the right to decide freely whether they want to have sex, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.

The Domestic Relations Bill, and its provision on marital rape in particular, is exactly the type of reform that anyone who cares about stopping HIV/AIDS and promoting women’s rights should support. Having languished in parliament for more than a decade, it is time for action on the DRB.
Hadija Namaganda’s two children will be orphaned when she finally succumbs to AIDS. By failing to criminalize marital rape, the Ugandan government is enabling abuse like Namaganda suffered to continue. It is too late to save her from HIV/AIDS, but by enacting and implementing the DRB, the Ugandan government can save the lives of countless other women and girls.

LaShawn R. Jefferson
Executive Director
Women’s Rights Division

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country