By Denise Kavuma
It’s a fact widely known that I live in a bubble. I do. It’s a beauteous creation, moulded by my own mind and brought into existence by a need to experience some happiness, as fleeting as it might be. Rarely do I consider this world hell but sometimes… well, sometimes the arguments against that notion hold no water. There are myriad despicable acts and horrid situations carried out and experienced almost constantly in this world. It’s enough to drive anyone to existentialism. How do we choose then, what to care about and whom to protect in a world where no one is safe and sometimes, every time, bad things just happen? How could we possibly do anything that matters? How can we be expected not to live in bubbles, just to experience some happiness, no matter how temporary?
All questions I am yet to find a solid answer to but while I search, I learned that I cannot always be in my little bubble. Being a doctor forces me to interact with numerous people. Some people I’d much rather not meet but there’s little I can do about that. Others though, break my heart. From the terminally ill children to those who are assaulted and end up losing limbs and organs as a result. It’s difficult sometimes to keep the emotional tsunamis at bay, in these situations. And I have many emotions. The patients I can never seem to forget though are those who are victims of domestic abuse.
Once upon a time, I actively sought to help these women as much as I could, by informing the administration of the hospital I worked in, slipping them FIDA’s number on the sly, and insisting on counselling. The administrators, for whatever reasons, were tolerant of my actions and so for the longest time, I thought that most medics felt the same as I did, about domestic violence. I was wrong, of course, and this hit me hard when I discussed the issue with my team. Their beliefs elicited a powerful emotional response I feel up to this day.
- Ebyo bya love. That’s how it goes; it’s difficult to fight against love and if a woman still stays with her man even after all of that, then she’s in love and there’s nothing anyone else can do about it.
- Well, first I’d ask what she did wrong. Most of these women are horrible and go on infuriating their husbands who are then justified in beating them up as a response.
- Oh please, men don’t beat up women anymore. They’re lying; it just doesn’t happen in this day and age.
- Of course, I’d never advise her to leave the relationship! That’s how women start saying that the advisor is after their men.
- If they already have children together, she HAS to stay. It’s ok for a man to leave the relationship but not for the woman to.
- Yes, I know that children that grow up in homes with violence are affected and thusly damaged but I’d still advise her to stay if she has kids with the man.
- No, I’d never stay in a relationship where the man beats me… but doctor, it depends. I mean if it’s once in a while, what’s the harm? These are the mountains they counsel us on and say we’ll have to overcome in our marriages.
- Some women think that if a man doesn’t beat her, he doesn’t love her. So what can I do really?
- Now in the case of this lady whose husband beat her and then brought her to hospital, that’s true love. You can’t get in the way of that.
I thought I’d escaped that kind of thinking until about a month ago when a lady walked into my consultation room. She was beautiful and well dressed, which is something you notice when 80% of your clientele constitutes of people too poor to afford the surgeries at the center, no matter how desperately they need them, or how much the prices reduce. So yes, this lady looked quite different, with her high heels and fair skin, except for the swollen, bruised, and bleeding state of her left eye. She wasn’t shy about the cause and told us quite plainly that her husband had punched her in the face. I felt a little sick to my stomach once those words left her mouth and I didn’t ask why, because there can never be a reason why someone would do that sort of thing, only excuses.
Thankfully, her eye was going to be just fine with a little treatment and I was loathe to just send her along, so I asked the opinion of one of my older, more experienced colleagues. His response was to send her on her way and not give her any ideas. Not give her any ideas. As if giving a victim of abuse an option for a way out is something loathsome. I didn’t believe him so I went to someone senior to both of us and he, in return, asked me what I thought I could do. He insisted that I ought to give her treatment and send her along, until I was sure there was a social worker or someone who could help her. I checked; there wasn’t.
That night I tossed and turned in my bed, wondering why we couldn’t collaborate with the police or psychologists from different units. We get these people coming through every day, people in power, and a partnership wouldn’t be that hard to conjure up. Just to give victims of abuse the option to leave and get some support. I failed to find a viable reason why we hadn’t done that already. So I, as naïve as I am sometimes, decided that perhaps having a conversation with the people around me could help them understand better. “Because, after all, we’re willing to get involved when children are abused, so why not couples?” My innocent mind reasoned. I was proven wrong, again, and decided to shut my mouth.
Ugandans seem to equate domestic violence to petty arguments amongst couples. Something to be ignored and which will be worked out. They never actually seem to comprehend the idea that by the time a spouse is beaten, there was an age of psychological abuse before that. No one who argues that “these women go back anyway, so why should we get involved” seems to know how it is to hate yourself so completely, that you become resigned to your fate as a human slave because your significant other convinced you. Few ever remember that it’s about power and so the abuser will do anything to maintain that. Domestic violence is often defined as the wilful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behaviour as part of a systemic pattern of power and control perpetuated by one intimate partner against another. It doesn’t just start there, of course.
A society that believes it’s perfectly normal to hit your wife if she gets too mouthy. That men cannot ever be psychologically, physically, or sexually assaulted unless they really wanted it. And which kind of man doesn’t want to have sex all the time? That women are property and it’s perfectly normal to pay for them before marriage and that this is all our culture so any change is threatening that. In a society like this, how can it ever be wrong to for a man to sexually force himself onto his wife if it’s considered his right? How dare we call it rape? It can never be abuse if it’s seen as an appropriate response to an uncontrollable spouse. That’s how it begins.
No one thinks to themselves that they are the kind to be abused. “I never thought I could end up in an abusive relationship and stay¸” many survivors are often quoted saying. Even more, no one thinks that they could ever, ever be the abuser. I once worked with a doctor who was open hearted, ambitious, and helpful at work but used to strangle his fiancée every time he got upset with her. Just yesterday, I got into an argument with a doctor who said we should document everything we see on patients, except when it’s a woman who says she was beaten by the husband because you never know if she’s making it up.
Allow me to hammer that point in further. According to him, it was imperative that if a child said he was punched by a teacher and that’s what caused his globe rupture, we ought to document that. If it was a boda-boda guy who said he was assaulted by thieves in the night, it went down in the patient’s written history. If it’s a woman who says she was beaten and even you can see the signs of assault however, you leave the cause vague because you never know. And all the other doctors in the room nodded sagely, thinking that decision sagacious. So of course when I raised my objections – because you just don’t start some shit with me – and started talking about domestic abuse and our role in it as healthcare providers, I was told I was taking it too far. Of course. Because it’s still a private, family matter even if someone comes to you for treatment.
Is it a little twisted then that I would much rather stay in my bubble? That whenever someone asks me how it is that Ugandans treat this crime like it’s nothing, even when people are burned by acid and have their hands chopped off; how it is that that doesn’t cause a public outcry, I say I don’t know. I do not know because I grew up in a setting where such acts were seen as vile and I was told never to keep quiet about them. Therefore I don’t really know how anyone can see a victim in pain and in need of medical attention and think “oh, they’ll work it out. It was just a silly spat.” I don’t know how we as medics could deny these victims hope or an avenue for freedom through the law, but refusing to document their complaints.
I thought long and hard, wondering what I could do at this point. I am still yet to have enough money to start a women’s shelter that can be a safe place. My writing about this would hardly reach enough people because I am too wordy, not emotional enough (or too emotional), and no one likes to be preached to, much less on the internet. The writing also won’t do much for the battered women. It would just be me patting myself on the back and trying to make myself feel better.
Then I thought about how sick it would be if I were seeing and listening to these despicable experiences but did not do anything about them, not even by writing.
Have any ideas how this situation can be made better? Sound off in the comments or reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org