Hunched over a sewing machine, Jennipher Alupot is an unlikely poster girl for the women's rights movement. In fact, the young Ugandan mother is totally unaware of how her story – almost too horrific to be believed – has caused waves across the country and down the corridors of power, ultimately giving thousands of abused women the chance of justice.
For seven years, Jennipher was forced to breastfeed the puppies of her husband's hunting dogs. After drinking and smoking heavily, Nathan Alowoi would appear at the marital bed, bind his young wife's legs and hands together and force the mewling animals to her nipple.
He had handed over two cows to his father-in-law as part of the "bride price" for his new wife. So, he reasoned, if the cows were no longer around to provide milk then his new purchase would have to provide for the pups. "I had to feed them all through the night; then in the morning he would untie me," his wife, now 26, explains matter-of-factly.
Her ordeal began out in the rural east in 2002 with the arrival of her first-born, a daughter called Achom. There was a reprieve with the second child, a boy named after his father as tradition dictates and thus protected from the indignity of having to share his mother's breast with the puppies. But when the third child, another son, Olinga, was born, a new litter was brought to suckle.
That baby, she recalls, started having fits and foaming at the mouth. Olinga died just before his second birthday. "I think it could have been something to do with the dogs," his mother says.
Jennipher had tried to resist her husband before and had alerted her own family, her in-laws and tribal elders to her suffering. She had even dared to go to the police in the nearest town, Pallisa. All in vain.
After her baby son's death, she hoped her husband's perversion might at least end. Then this March, she gave birth to another daughter, Apunyo, and the abuse started up once more, only more violently. One night when she protested, her husband pierced her with a spear under the chin.
This time she snapped. She fled to the women's refuge in Pallisa. Not only did the centre – supported by ActionAid, one of the charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal – give Jennipher and her baby daughter a roof over their heads, but they are also helping her bring legal action against her husband.
The case made front-page headlines around the East African nation, with commentators lining up to denounce the shocking abuse. A bill to tighten up domestic violence laws that had been languishing in the Ugandan parliament for more years, was rushed through last month. "That bill was passed because of Jennipher," said Caroline Odoi, ActionAid's coordinator in Pallisa. "Her case opened so many people's eyes; it unblocked everything."
"The women's movement built up the pressure very effectively," agreed Sylvia Tamale, the dean of law at Makerere University in the capital, Kampala. "Our government generally just pays lip service to women's rights; they only take action when it becomes politically expedient."
Although the particularly grim abuse that Jennipher suffered appears to be a one-off, domestic violence against women is widespread in Uganda. According to a 2006 government survey, more than two in three women have suffered some form of abuse at the hands of a spouse.
Mifumi, a group campaigning for women's rights in the country, believes the "bride price" practice is a leading contributor to the spiralling levels of domestic violence in Uganda.
Tribal custom dictates that a prospective husband sends a delegation to his chosen bride's home. Her family then set a value on their daughter's worth, usually expressed in a mixture of livestock and shillings. The haggling begins, and continues until a deal is struck. "Bride price renders the notion that a man has purchased a wife, including her sexual consent, labour and obedience," says Atuki Turner, Mifumi's director.
At the women's refuge in Pallisa, legal officer Hope Iceduna, sees first-hand the legacy of this custom: a steady stream of women arriving at her office. There was Florence, thrown out of her home after telling her husband of many years she was HIV-positive. He then demanded a refund of the bride price, but the cattle had long since died, the money long since spent; so instead he tried to appropriate some of her father's land. There was Annette, "inherited" by the brother of her deceased husband, because the family still considered her their property; and Grace, whose in-laws tried to seize her marital home once her husband died.
The bride price can often complicate efforts to get justice for these mistreated and dispossessed women. Sometimes a magistrate can rule that a bride price must be refunded, before the case will even be heard.
The women's centre in Pallisa was established in June 2008. From then until the beginning of 2009, it dealt with 79 complaints – an average of 13 a month. In the first 11 months of this year, it has handled 310 – an average of 28. Most of the complaints are resolved through mediation in Ms Iceduna's office, where the parties in dispute perch on plastic chairs and set out their case. A dozen or so have made it to court.
ActionAid has been campaigning at the regional level, working with the district's tribal leaders to draw up a revised charter of traditional customs. One of the key goals is to transform the "bride price" into a "bride prize". "If it's a gift there are no strings attached and it is not refundable," Ms Odoi, the charity's point person in Pallisa, explains.
At one recent meeting around 40 clan heads – some in military fatigues, others in traditional caps – gathered in a church strung with festive bunting, to discuss the new best practices. The chair wrote up the proposals on a flipchart in red marker pen, and with schoolboy diligence the clan heads copied it down.
Item number one on the agenda was the age girls should marry and the minimum age for losing their virginity. Next came the issue of female inheritance and the traditional tasks around the home that should be passed on from mother to daughter alongside formal schooling.
The eighth point for discussion read: "There should be NO bride price but a non-refundable bride prize or kichaitma, hence the dowry should be abolished."
The ensuing floor debate threw up some interesting queries. "What if our clan agrees to this but our daughter marries someone from a different tribe?" said one. "Does this mean my daughter is worth nothing?" said another. And "What happens if the day after I pay kichaitma, my bride runs off?" The chair's response to the last concern was blunt. "Well, it's up to you to make sure she's satisfied and has no reason to leave you," he says to laughs from the audience.
There was a show of hands. All were in favour of abolishing the bride price. So did this mean the practice is no more – at least in the area around Pallisa? "We represent our communities," one clan leader said firmly. "And whatever we agree here, we will take back and they will accept."
The reality of weeding out such a deep-rooted tradtion might be slightly more complicated, but Ms Odoi is confident change is coming.
Alongside the negotiations with the male chieftains, ActionAid is also working to empower women, from running adult literacy lessons to forming community circles where women can air their concerns.
Back at the women's refuge, Jennipher is coming to the end of her seventh month there. Her case is currently before the Human Rights Commission, but if it fails there, she can seek justice within the framework of the newly passed Domestic Violence Act – which is simply awaiting the signature of President Yoweri Museveni to become law.
ActionAid are helping to build Jennipher a two-bedroom house, to which she hopes to move in the new year, and she is being taught to be a seamstress so she can support herself. As she cuddles baby Apunyo, she talks of her hopes for 2010. "My two eldest children are still with their father. I miss them a lot. I want just to be together with all my children again."
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