Legislation on marital rape and equality in the family could save the lives of countless women and girls, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the speaker of Uganda's Parliament. The letter urged the Ugandan parliament to debate the long-pending Domestic Relations Bill in the current session of parliament, and to enact and implement this legislation. The Domestic Relations Bill, which has languished in parliament for more than a decade, would afford women and girls greater equality in matters relating to marriage, divorce and family property. It would also make marital rape illegal. Scheduled for debate in May, it was delayed once again after President Yoweri Museveni said the bill was "not urgently needed," and after members of parliament asked for more time for consultation. Debate is now anticipated in June. "The longer the Domestic Relations Bill is delayed, the more women's lives will be lost,"said LaShawn R. Jefferson, Women's Rights director at Human Rights Watch. "Women face the risk of HIV infection when raped by their husbands."
The provision in the Domestic Relations Bill that would criminalize marital rape has come under particular attack. Some members of parliament argue that marital rape does not exist, or that this provision could break up families. Human Rights Watch reports have documented that domestic violence is rampant in Uganda, affecting some 40 percent of women, and many women are raped by their intimate partners. This violence puts women at risk for HIV. For example, Hadija Namaganda (a pseudonym) told Human Rights Watch that she tested positive for HIV in 1994. For years, her husband, who was HIV-positive, had routinely forced her to have unprotected sex with him and beat her viciously. 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.
Women in marriages and long-term unions are not safe from HIV, and are at particular risk when sexually abused by their partners. In sub-Saharan Africa, heterosexual sex is the dominant mode of HIV transmission. Recent studies in Kenya and Zambia found that HIV rates were 10 percent higher among married young women than among their unmarried female counterparts. 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. "Criminalizing marital rape is a crucial step toward promoting women's rights and stopping HIV/AIDS," said Jefferson. "It's time for action on the Domestic Relations Bill."
For more information on domestic violence, marital rape, and HIV/AIDS in Uganda see the following Human Rights Watch reports: Just Die Quietly: Domestic Violence and Women's Vulnerability to HIV in Uganda; The Less They Know, the Better: Abstinence-only HIV/AIDS Programs in Uganda.