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Challenging Harmful Norms and Practices

1. Introduction
MIFUMI is the largest women’s rights agency operating at grassroots level in Uganda enabling the provision of focused community based, complete range of support for survivors of domestic violence. It is a pioneering campaigning organization, and the only one globally addressing the existence of bride price and polygamy as a cultural driver of violence against women and children.

Harmful norms and practices arise from beliefs and expectations that negatively impact on people in a society, especially on women. These used to be referred to as “cultural practices” however, the term “harmful practices,” is preferable to harmful traditional or cultural practices as it avoids lumping together the good with the bad practices. For this reason, anything that society or culture does that is harmful is simply called a harmful practice. Harmful practices are usually thought of as arising in backward and rural based communities where traditional culture is entrenched. However, this is not the case because every society, whether urban or rural has harmful practices that are peculiar to it. For instance, the culture of guns and drugs in America is a harmful practice, as is the culture of fast food in most of Europe. Violence against women is a harmful culture, that is endemic throughout the world and that is condoned, cultivated and kept alive by the patriarchal society we live in which has historically placed women in a disadvantaged position.

In Africa, as in other parts of the world, women are disadvantaged by what is called the unwritten rules of society. In the past, there were many things that women were not allowed to do. For instance, there were food taboos for women. Women were not allowed to eat chicken which was a delicacy reserved only for men. Some people believe the taboo arose from the fear that since women did the cooking they might eat the chicken during the preparation so the safest way was to forbid women to eat it!

If you look closely at these so-called cultural practices, you will find that in many cases they keep women in a subordinate position. A clear example is the requirement that women should kneel when greeting, and is seen as a sign of good manners. However, kneeling only serves to reinforces the plot of patriarchal authority, especially in the domestic homestead.

Many social norms and practices for women arise from the roles that society has accorded them as mothers, carers and social organisers. Such stereotypical roles subscribe women to marriage and domesticate them, limit their aspirations and prevent them from realizing their potential in life. Women and girls who resist or rebel against some of these social expectations and beliefs are often punished or stigmatized. Women’s roles as carers result in them viewing marriage as the main goal in life. It results in them remaining in the home looking after children or the sick and doing menial tasks. They are prevented from going out to work to achieve their potential. Women are also seen as having the role as social organisers. For example, in Uganda, it is common for funerals to be organised by women’s groups who do the cooking, the fetching of the firewood and water and making sure everybody is fed and washing up the plates afterwards.

Some of these current practices are helpful to society but others are centered on women’s oppression under a patriarchal society. It is a recurring theme of women’s oppression and discrimination. As Ato Quayson, in his book Calibrations: Reading for the Social, (2003) writes, “There is an inescapable sense that the redefinition of the female role comes at an incredibly high cost”. The worst affected category of people in the world are female and poor, uneducated and black. These are the kind of women MIFUMI has made it her mission to support.

Why have harmful gender norms taken so long to be addressed?

This is why many harmful practices are often ignored, and policy makers fear to tackle them. Instead they are swept under the carpet in the guise of not wanting to interfere with the cultural practices of people, or with the sovereignty of nations, when the harmful practice is perpetuated by the State. In the case of inaction, it is the women who end up paying the price for these practices.

Bride Price as a harmful gender practice

MIFUMI was able to unearth and tackle the harmful practice of bride price and violations arising from it because it is operating in rural communities and is in close contact with the most marginalized women and girls. For example, MIFUMI became aware of the need to do something about Bride Price which was a cultural driver of violence against women, by listening and hearing what women were saying to us about its oppressive nature.

The reason women, especially poor women in rural areas, favour bride price or condone wife beating has to do with victimization and vulnerability and the silencing of voices of women so that they internalize the oppression and empathize with the abuser, in what is commonly known as the Stockholm syndrome. A way of empowering women is to enable them to value themselves differently, not for the number of cows they can fetch, but for their skills and aspirations.

The case of Joyce Nekesa outlined below illustrates some of the ways the custom and practice of bride price harm women.

Joyce Nekesa: A case study on harmful gender norms in modern society (or modernity)

Joyce Nekesa got married at 17 years of age. They were neighbours, he noticed her just like she had noticed him. They decided to get married. Joyce says: “He got some cows and paid to my father After paying the cows, we had five children together.”

After having the five children, he started neglecting her and he was always in the company of other women. Whenever she raised this with him, he would start beating her. Each time he beat her he would say, “I am beating my property, I am beating my cows,” because his father had paid three cows and three goats at her traditional marriage.

Joyce has known no peace or happiness in her marriage. She believes that sometimes her husband mistreated and beat her so she could leave to enable him bring another woman to her home. But when she did not leave –  he left her and rented a place at a trading centre. He lived there with another woman.

Joyce stayed on and managed her small food vending kiosk; selling tea and chapatti. He however would come to take all the money from the sales. Each time she asked him where the money they were making from the business was going, he would tell her, she has no right to ask him. He would respond saying she was just a squatter in his home and had no right to question him on issues regarding the money she made from the kiosk.

When he was upset, he would beat her using a whip, his hands and kick her with his feet. One day he beat her badly. She tried to defend herself but failed because he was strong. She decided to leave and returned to her parents’ home.

Her father started to pressure her to return to her marital home because they did not have cows to refund her Bride Price; adding that when she left, she left to go get married. When her mother tried to speak on her behalf, they could not let her say anything concerning Nekesa and her marriage. On one occasion she returned home and her Uncle beat her up badly and sent her back to her husband. Finally, she returned to her husband and went to the local shop and bought rat poison. She thought to herself, “At least let me die so I am buried here where my children can look at the grave of their mother, to know she existed.” She drank the rat poison intending to commit suicide but was found in time and rushed to hospital. There she was told about MIFUMI the NGO that supports women and campaigns against bride price. MIFUMI intervened in her case and the husband was jailed on account of assault and cautioned not to demand any bride price as refund otherwise he would be re-arrested.

Nekesa went on to set up an independent business and was resettled by the help of MIFUMI. She became a Champion for women’s rights and has set up her own group of women, fighting violence and child abuse in the community

This case study raises many issues of harmful gender norms. Some of these are:

Bride price refund – even when a man mistreats you and chases you away, you are still expected to pay, to divorce your abuser.

Women are seen as the man’s ‘property’ hence he equates beating a woman to beating his cows.

Women have no voice and no decision-making powers in the home. Hence Nekesa’s mother was not allowed to speak on her behalf.

Male relatives have powers of the women-folk of the house, hence the Uncle could beat Nekesa and force her to return to her home.

Women have nowhere they can call their own. They have no place, no land or property because succession is through the males only.

Translating harmful norms to human rights language

MIFUMI translated these harmful practices into the language of human rights when it challenged the Constitutional Court on the legality of bride price. The main rights being violated included; the right to equality, the right to free consent of persons intending to marry or leave a marriage, equal rights when entering marriage, during marriage and at the dissolution of marriage, upholding the dignity of women and the right to be free from degrading treatment.

One of the challenges on consent were that the learned Justices of the Constitutional Court had erred in law when they failed to make a declaration that the demand for, and payment of, bride price fetters the free consent of persons intending to marry or leave a marriage; this is in violation of Article 31(3) of the Constitution, because the demand for bride price makes the consent of persons who intend to marry contingent upon the demands of a third party (the parents).

2. The role of NGOs and activists in challenging harmful gender norms

NGOs and charities start when someone or people perceive a need in their community. The founders of NGOs are also often in a position to do something about the perceived need through exposure to new ideas from other places, or through education or because they have the resources. The NGO becomes a bridge between the community and the outside world.

Sally Engle Merry, in her book, Human Rights and Gender Violence, (2003) articulates the important role that NGOs such as MIFUMI and local activists play in advancing women’s rights. She writes:

The division between transnational elites and local actors is based less on culture and tradition than on tensions between a transnational community that envisions a unified modernity, and national and local actors for whom particular histories and contexts are important. Intermediaries such as NGOs and social movement activists play a critical role in interpreting the cultural world of transnational modernity for local claimants. They appropriate, translate, and remake transnational discourses into the vernacular. At the same time, they take local stories and frame them in national and international human rights language. Activist often participate in two cultural spheres at the same time, translating between them with a kind of double consciousness (Sally Engle Merry, 2006 in Human Rights and Gender Violence).


2b. Challenging social structures and norms around gender equality

In international human rights, culture often refers to traditions and customs: ways of doing things that are justified by their roots in the past. A concern about traditional harmful practices and the role of culture in subordinating women is enshrined in the major documents concerning women’s rights, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (signed 2003, effective 2005), addresses and condemns harmful practices such as female genital mutilation. Although it is not specifically named, one can imply that Bride Price too is a harmful practice.

3. Context and Issues

Violence and abuse are still common and widespread in Uganda 

The 2016 Demographic and Health survey reported that 1 in 5 women had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime compared to 1 in 8 men; also, that annually more than 13% of women. 15-49 (more than 1 million) reported experiencing sexual violence. Laws and policies exist but implementation is limited.

Most common today are spousal violence and child abuse.
These include:

  • Physical harm of women and children
  • Use of threats, intimidation, humiliation,
  • Parental neglect
  • Defilement
  • Sexual exploitation of minors
  • Sexual harassment of women in public spaces
  • Land rights violations- grabbing, deprivation of access and use 
  • Poverty and COVID-19 makes it harder for survivors to exercise choices

Below are some of the main ways that harmful norms and practices are promulgated:

  • Commodification of women and girls (bride price and polygamy)
    Violence against women and harmful norms like bride price and polygamy commodifies women and girls so that they are not seen as human beings deserving respect but as commodities with the attendant mistreatment and denial of human and legal rights, particularly land and property rights, and issues affecting children (Child sexual abuse and exploitation, child neglect, refusal to pay maintenance, removal from school, child marriage, etc.). 
  • Blame the survivor (you must have done something to cause this?) 
    The culture of blaming the survivor is very common. When a woman reports abuse, the first question she is often asked is: ‘What did you do?’. The message implicit in this attitude is that it is the women who do wrong, and deserve to be beaten. It is very important for women to recognize the falsehood in this. That is why a key feminist principle is that “No woman deserves to be beaten.” The message must be made clear that domestic violence is a crime, even if it is “just a slap’.

    Women who challenge discrimination and domination by men often suffer a backlash from the community. This is aimed at controlling women’s actions. Women who report intimate partner violence may suffer stigma and shame and can be ostracised from the community.
  • Men’s authority to “discipline” the wife 
    Violence Against Women (VAW) is still seen as acceptable and a normal aspect of the relationship between men and women. The 2016 Demographic and Health survey reported that 6 in 10 women (58%) and 4 in 10 men (44%) believed that wife beating is justified for one or more reasons. Myths are used to sustain violence against women. For example, the myth that a man beats you because he loves you is a myth used to justify domestic violence. Furthermore, negative stereotypes, such as ‘she wears the trousers in the home’  are used to criticise women who try to assert their independence.
  • Social settlement of cases without accountability is widely practiced 
    Violence against women is not easily defined as a human rights violation because many forms of domestic violence and sexual assault are perpetrated by private citizens rather than by state actors. Because domestic violence occurs behind closed doors, it was seen as being outside the realm of the state. For a long time, it was seen as a private matter and dismissed by the Police and authorities as “a domestic affair” which should be solved at home. Women were relegated to self-help while police often colluded with the perpetrators. Many women were left at the mercy of abusive partners until the feminist movement stepped in and carried out a campaign to get the message out that the ‘the private is public.’ This means that what happens in the privacy of the home, is sanctioned by the State through lack of laws and political will to end violence against women.

    Unfortunately, the attitude that women are not equipped with the same human right as men, has sadly persisted and that is why cases are settled informally outside the judicial system.
  • Marriage as the main or only goal for women and girls 
    The reason why women are encouraged to aspire to marriage is the control that men hold over women’s bodies. Women are expected to be under the care and authority of a male person who can be the father or husband. In the past, and in certain cases in modernity, women are relegated to the care of a male relative (the ‘father figure’) in the absence of a father or husband. The control of women’s bodies is closely linked to women being viewed as property, that can be “exchanged” or “transferred” from one male to another.
  • Physical punishment of children is normalized 
    We live in a patriarchal society which thrives on oppression manifested through violence. The patriarchal system contains a hierarchy of oppression where women and children occupy lesser positions. Children are seen as belonging to the parents. Girls especially, are seen as property rather than as children with rights. Children are not seen as individuals in their own rights and violence is meted out to them with legitimation, such as physical punishment by parents and corporal punishment in schools.

    MIFUMI continues to relay the message to parents of the common responsibility of men and women in the upbringing and development of their children and that the interest of the children is the primordial consideration. Children are a responsibility of the state and that parents have the responsibility and privilege of bringing them up. If we are to work towards a peaceful world, we must avoid having children reared on violence, because they will only go on to be abusive themselves. Children need the example from grown-ups and need to be taught that violence is not a justifiable form of conflict resolution. Through its work with schools, MIFUMI trains young boys and girls to work towards healthy relationships, free from violence and abuse.
  • Backlash-targeted at organization and Women Rights Champions in the form of misleading false claims and propaganda 
    Women’s Activists, rights workers and human rights organisations face backlash and persecution when they bring forward claims of violence against women and women’s rights abuses. MIFUMI, for example is accused of “breaking up families” and “causing the violence” in homes. It was accused of  “teaching women bad behavior and making them stubborn and disobedient.”