WAKISO DISTRICT, Uganda – Francis Bahati was frantic when he went to report his partner’s disappearance to local police in August. Aisha Nakasinde, 25, had not come home the previous day from her job selling cassava plants. But the officer dismissed Bahati’s fears for the mother of their three children. “Don’t worry,” the officer said. “She may have just gone to marry someone else.”
Nakasinde never returned to her home in Entebbe, a normally laid-back town on the banks of Lake Victoria, in Uganda’s Wakiso district. Four days after she went missing, her body was discovered by strangers at a landing site near where she worked. She had been strangled, one of her legs had been hacked off and she had been vaginally raped with a stick.
The scene was becoming familiar to police – six women had already been found dead in Entebbe in similar circumstances, and more would follow.
There have been 23 young women killed in the Katabi and Nansana parts of Wakiso District in nearly five months. While police have arrested several suspects, with varying motives, the murders continue. At different times, and in sometimes conflicting reports, the police have floated theories that the murders could be the work of one or more serial killers, the results of domestic violence or of ritual killings, and that the victims may all have been sex workers.
The sudden spike in femicides in these areas and the lack of progress in solving the cases has sparked outrage in the country, with activists and the public accusing the authorities of dragging their feet because the victims are women. Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni visited the scene of the killings for the first time on September 25, too late for many of the area’s frightened residents. “We expected him to come earlier,” says Daisy Aloyo, an Entebbe local councillor.
Bahati, 31, says no one has been charged over his partner’s death yet, and he is struggling to get updates from the police. “I have questions with no answers,” he says.
Even before the recent killings, women in Uganda have been subjected to high rates of gender-based violence. According to the country’s latest demographic and health survey, more than one in five women said they had experienced sexual abuse at some point. Some in Uganda are now saying that the spate of slayings highlights the vulnerability of women in the country and the double standards they face when it comes to violence, security and the law.
So far, at least 44 people have been arrested over the killings, with over 26 charged with various crimes, including murder, aggravated robbery and terrorism, the latter because under Ugandan law “indiscriminate use of violence amounts to terrorism,” says Kampala metropolitan police spokesperson Emilian Kayima.
According to a report by Uganda’s internal affairs minister, eight of the victims were murdered by members of a criminal gang, one of whom confessed to police that the gang had been contacted by a businessman to procure blood for a ritual killing believed to bring wealth and prosperity. At least two of the victims were killed as a result of domestic violence, and another over a land dispute.
But Ugandans are demanding more answers, faster justice and better measures to stop more women from being killed.
On September 25, a bipartisan group of about 30 women and men held a peaceful protest in Entebbe to call for more police and government accountability and for a national day of mourning. “Our intention was to get the attention of government and security,” says one organizer, John Mugabi, the director of Ugandan nonprofit organization Action for Liberty and Economic Development. “The government, police and [community] leaders have not paid much attention.”
But the protesters were quickly stopped by police, and five were arrested over illegal assembly, Mugabi says. The organizers say they had obtained all the necessary permissions from police for the gathering.
In early September, MPs stopped work for two days over the murders, refusing to address any issues on the agenda until the government made a statement on the progress of the inve
stigations. Local councillor Aloyo, who was detained during the rally, notes that in the week before a bill to remove the presidential age limit – and therefore keep leader Yoweri Museveni in power – “a lot of the army and police were deployed around the Parliament and we were thinking, ‘Why are those guys [there] when women are dying in Entebbe?’”
“This is a national issue, women are dying,” Aloyo says. “They should be discussing this in Parliament, rather than the [presidential] age limit.”
The atmosphere of fear created by the killings has had a “big impact” on women in the area, with “business down,” some women leaving work early, and many afraid to go outside at all, says Aloyo.
“If people want to meet me, I cannot meet them in a public place,” says Fatuma Nasanga, 30. Her cousin, Jalia Nalule, 33, disappeared around the same time as Nakasinde. The body of the mother of two was found nine days later by a passerby in a pine forest only about 2 miles (3km) from where Nakasinde’s body was discovered.
Charles Onyango-Obbo, the Ugandan-born journalist and publisher of digital startup Africapedia, who is based in Kenya, has publicly questioned whether the government response would be the same if the victims were men.
“The odds are terribly stacked against women in Uganda, as indeed in most of the world,” Onyango-Obbo tells News Deeply.
He says the country’s “continuing fascination” with traditional kingdoms, the impact of religion on policies and the issue of land ownership, around which “men still build their power and privilege” are all factors in the “structural and systemic” failures to protect women.
“All these have created a superstructure where extending the same rights and protections [to women] constitutes a threat to the old order and therefore is likely to be subverted,” he says.
Police spokesperson Kayima calls Onyango-Obbo’s comments “extremely biased,” but agrees that the recent flurry of killings “openly shows that [women] are soft targets.” He adds that the government should consider designing new police and state programs to give women special protection. The Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA) has said it wants to see the police set up a special gender and equity protection department. In a local report, the head spokesperson for Uganda police, Asan Kasingye, said there is a police unit dedicated to investigating sexual gender-based crimes, but it needs more funding.
As he waits for answers, Bahati remembers that, at one point, he found some solace in the hope that “maybe the killings had ended with my partner.” But 16 more women have been butchered since, the latest victim a 22-year-old restaurant worker named Sarah Neliima, whose body was discovered in a banana garden on September 20.
“Now, I’m fearing for my daughters,” he says.