Monster Maid – Uganda Must Confront Culture of Violence [opinion]

At least 12 million people have seen the video clip of the Ugandan maid Jolly Tumuhiirwe bashing 18-month- old baby Arnella, with many of the viewers being reduced to tears.

The tragedy with this story is that actions like this happen all over Uganda every day. We just never get to see them. Whether in the villages of Bududa, in Arapai, or in the city suburbs of Kampala, maids, siblings and parents are beating small children, and men are beating women. It is a culture of violence that seems imbued in our body fabric.

But bow did we ever reach this point?

There has always been violence in our society, but I believe it has got worse. Among the Gisu, for instance, as in many African cultures, beating wives and children is seen as a norm for enforcing discipline. Unfortunately, women, who are themselves the victims of violence from men, are the greatest perpetrators of violence against children.

Studies have shown that more women than men beat and starve children in their households, mostly children from other marriages. Even at schools, children get beaten for very little – not getting a question right, not having hair combed, or nails cleaned. Ugandan children grow up numbed to pain, and end up inflicting pain without regard.

Ugandan youths themselves are some of the perpetrators of violence in homes, communities, and schools. They fight and strike, burning school buildings and beating up administrators for reasons as frivolous as failure to watch a Premier League football match.

Needless to say, government officials are some of the greatest perpetrators of violence. Police are particularly brutal when confronting even the smallest and meekest forms of protests. They beat the protesters mercilessly and without holding back.

Even the idea that a suspect may be innocent does not seem to be true anymore. The other day, the Ugandan minister for Ethics and Integrity announced that Uganda was considering a law that would assume every suspect is guilty until they are proved innocent.

That, friends, is where our society is today.We fight and kill each other for very little. An outsider looking at us may wonder what has happened to our community. And yet almost any foreigner who visits Uganda comments on the kindness and humbleness of the people – 80 per cent of whom are professed Christians and 15 per cent Muslims – religions that eschew violence. Many foreigners think Ugandans are the most gentle people in the world. So, is it that we react to foreigners differently than to our own people?

There is evidence this is the case. A white person visiting an office in Uganda will be treated differently (better) than a black person. Whether we are sub-consciously practising reverse racism, I don’t know. Whatever it is, we must change our ways if we are to be accepted into civilized society. Violence or brute force is no way to conduct business. If Christianity and other religions have failed to provide the grounding for a more cultured society, we must re-examine what can work.

Education is an obvious alternative. A holistic education that imbues students with appropriate characters and skills takes away the instinct to use violence to solve problems. It gives the child problem-solving skills, and the powers of persuasion that militate against violence.

But education is a very long-term solution. The children who begin school today will not finish college until 2030, a whole sixteen years from now. We don’t have that luxury of time. Beyond education, I have two suggestions for curbing the problem of violence in our society. The first one is empowering the sections of our society that are mostly the victims of violence – women and children.

When women and children are dependent on men for economic and social survival, they see violence from men as a necessary part of life. When you give women the tools to build independent economic lives, you shatter the veneer of dependency and subjugation. We have seen this in a programme we have carried out in Bududa in the last few years.

Working with the Women’s Micro-Finance Initiative, we have since 2008, given small loans to 420 women. They use the loans to run small businesses, and use the profits to feed their families and grow their businesses. In just a few years, the women who participate in our micro finance programmes have become the major breadwinners for their families.

The men have even come to depend on the women for money to buy cigarettes or drinks. When these women come to meetings, they talk with self-confidence and a new authority. They speak without fear, or servitude, because they know they have the economic power in their homes.

For the children, the only way for them to feel empowered is to allow them to participate in the decisions that affect their lives, whether at home or at school. In the USA, families hold regular family meetings where they discuss everything – from what to eat at the next family lunch, to what type of TV to buy, or where to go for vacation.

Children often make the majority of these decisions. At many schools in USA, students have what they call town meetings, weekly meetings in their common room where they discuss everything about school. This can include momentous decisions like what courses the school should provide, the need for additional teachers, more computers, or even simple things like their menu.

All teachers and administrators attend these meetings and respond, often in positive ways. Where students have chosen what to eat or learn, where would the need be for a strike?

The second solution is to use the levers of all the arms of government. I don’t often place faith in government as an instrument of change, but this is one exception I am willing to make. Parliament and local councils must pass meaningful laws and bylaws to curb violence in our society.

MPs must examine the causes of violence and impose meaningful penalties for starting, sustaining, participating in or abetting violence. The Executive must implement all such laws passed. Executive includes local chiefs and district officials as well as our national government. And the judiciary must prosecute and punish all law breakers to the fullest extent of the law.

If the government shows resolve, it can dramatically reduce the levels of violence in our society.

The author, a Ugandan living in the USA, is the founder of the Arlington Academy of Hope.

Source : The Observer

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