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Saying ‘no’ to sex: a woman’s right

The Ugandan government wants everyone to ‘Abstain, Be faithful and use Condoms’. But this message can't get far when thousands of wives are being infected with HIV/AIDS by their husbands.

The catchy alphabetical slogan – Abstain, Be Faithful, Condom Use – captures the spirit that has helped make Uganda one of sub-Saharan Africa's rare success stories in the fight against AIDS.

From a 1992 peak HIV prevalence of 15 per cent (30 per cent among pregnant women in urban areas), the figure plummeted to a national average of five percent (14 per cent for pregnant women) by the end of 2001, according to the United Nations.

Many countries have since adopted the slogan, and US President George W Bush has made A, B and – somewhat reluctantly – C the centrepiece of his $15 billion global AIDS initiative for Africa and the Caribbean.

The ABC message may be catchy, but it does not automatically protect married women. Tens of thousands of Ugandan women have died from AIDS, the vast majority of them monogamous wives infected by husbands.

At a February international meeting on women and infectious diseases in the US city of Atlanta, Dr Paul DeLay of the UN Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) warned that a married woman who is faithful is at tremendous risk of HIV infection if she has "a philandering husband".

In Uganda, such husbands may forcibly demand their marital 'rights', won't countenance HIV testing and beat and rape wives who ask that they use condoms.

There is a problem with ABC prevention programmes, says the rights group Human Rights Watch: it rests on the dangerously wrong assumption that women have the same decision-making powers as men over sexual choices. In August 2003 HRW charged in its report, Just Die Quietly: Domestic Violence and Women's Vulnerability to HIV in Uganda, that the government's failure to criminalise domestic violence and marital rape "is costing women their lives".

The report revealed that 34 of the 50 women interviewed by HRW confessed that their husbands physically forced them to have sex.

Hadija Namaganda [a pseudonym] told HRW that her HIV-positive husband raped and beat her viciously and continually. Namaganda, now HIV positive, said: "He used to force me to have sex with him after he became ill … I didn't know about condoms. We didn't use them."

But marital rape is not recognised as a crime in Uganda.

Lydia Mpachibi [a pseudonym], a 35-year-old HIV-positive widow, said that while her husband was alive she refrained from HIV testing, fearing he would evict her. "I wouldn't dare because if I was HIV-positive he would say I brought the virus into the home… I have seen many women being chased away by their husbands… I was scared of being thrown out."

Unfortunately Just Die Quietly itself died a quiet death, its findings receiving a muted response from the media and government, although the director general of the Uganda AIDS Commission, Dr Kihumuro Apuuli, has conceded that domestic violence increases women's vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.

Now, Ugandan women may finally gain legal protection against marital rape and other injustices in marriage which put them at risk of HIV infection: In late 2003, a long-awaited Domestic Relations Bill (DRB), which reforms existing family laws and ensures women's equality and justice within marriage and at divorce, was tabled in Parliament.

The Bill decrees that either partner can refuse to have sex on "reasonable grounds", including fear of disease. If passed, the Bill will make marital rape a civil and criminal offence.

State recognition that rape within marriage is a crime challenges the widely held notion that when a woman says "I do" at her wedding, she can no longer say "I do not" to sex. "It is very critical that we have legislation against marital rape, especially when it highlights issues such as HIV/AIDS," Dora Byamukama, Member of Parliament and coordinator of Law and Advocacy for Women in Uganda, told Panos Features.

Adds Sheila Kawamara-Mishambi, an MP in the regional East African Legislature: "Ugandans should wake up and realise that marital rape occurs. Although it is difficult to prove, it is important that it be criminalised."

The Bill also tackles traditional customs such as bride price: money and/or goods paid by a man to his intended wife's family. Critics say the custom reduces women to sexual property and traps them in abusive marriages if their parents cannot or do not refund their dowry.

Noerine Kaleeba, founder of The AIDS Support Organisation, an NGO, and an advisor to UNAIDS, says 'ABC' is a valid strategy but misses a fundamental point: "If women are married off early with bride price on their heads, they can't abstain."

The Bill states bride price is an optional marriage gift and makes it a punishable offence to demand its return upon divorce.

Although women's and legal groups – including the Uganda chapter of the International Women Lawyers (FIDA-U) and the Law Reform Commission – have conducted community consultations and reviews in the campaign for family law reform since the 1990s, versions of the Bill have been shelved several times. Polygamy [multiple marriage partners], inheritance and property rights at divorce have been – and still are – hotly contested issues.

One critic is Conservative Party MP Yusef Nsubuga Nsambu. "Although some women like it, it is a poisonous Bill," Nsambu says. "Passing [it] will be very difficult. Very few MPs will accept it as it stands now. It deprives the man of his rights."

East African Legislature member Irene Ovonji-Odida, who led out the Law Reform Commission review in the mid-1990s, says: "[The DRB] is a personal law. Most decision makers don't look at it objectively. They relate it to themselves."

Annette Ttendo, advocacy officer of FIDA-U, agrees and attributes the delay in passing the Bill to lack of political will: "Uganda is a patriarchal society," she says.

Even President Yoweri Museveni, who publicly supports the Bill, has reputedly ordered numerous reviews, which some women's rights groups have called "delaying tactics", according to HRW. The rights organisation noted that Museveni, in a 25 October 2002 letter to Janet Mukwaya, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, expressed his concern that the Bill incorporated Western values that were harmful.

He feared that by introducing women's property rights, for instance, "…marriage will not be because of love. It will be because of inheritance anticipation."

The truth, women's rights groups counter, is that without this law and specific domestic violence legislation, the only 'inheritance' many Ugandan wives can anticipate is HIV infection.

Jennifer Bakyawa, a Centres For Disease Control HIV/AIDS Fellow at Makerere University, writes for the Ugandan newspaper The Monitor.

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