Thursday, December 11, 2014

Why I am not particularly surprised by women killing their husbands

At the end of 2008, I was allowed the privilege of access to the files of the serious crimes unit at the CID headquarters. I am tempted to tell you that in the spirit of good professional and constructive journalism, I had decided to go beyond reporting crime numbers to understanding the stories behind the numbers. I won't lie. What I really wanted from those files was a blockbuster, dramatic story that would make me the Truman Capote of my time. So in that pursuit, first, I picked out the murder case files. Then from the murder case files, I picked out the most sensational type --- spousal murders. These surely would give me long dramatic story-lines that involved long standing major dramas of land, money and power plays, that eventually culminated into elaborately planned executions done by hired hitmen and so on. I’d dig deep into these stories, visit the murderers in prison, weave intricate tales about the extremes that spin one’s humanity out of touch and audiences would be eating out of my palm the whole time. (Yes, my mother says it too. My life’s lens is coloured too much by American TV).

What I found was chilling. Apparently we Ugandans are pretty casual about the business of killing our spouses. I had 86 case files (73 dead women, 13 dead men) and none of the stories therein were dramatic or elaborate. Most of those 86 people were killed on a moment’s whim and for nada a thing. Like; a couple starts off debating whether or not their son should share their bed. Then they are fighting. Then he’s beating her so bad the kid runs to the neighbours. The neighbours take the kid in but kinda just leave the couple to their thing. Next morning, the woman is dead. Or, she goes home drunk and in reply to her husband’s inquiry, says a drunken thing like, “I was out making money out of my vagina.” He calmly waits for her to go to bed and strangles her in her sleep. Meanwhile, somewhere else, a woman is being beaten into a fatal coma for refusing to tell the husband which man bought her the drink on her breath. It went on and on, ever so chillingly casual, that three days later, I went to my journalism mentor and I said, “I don’t know how to tell this story. Am I supposed to tell people that 86 Ugandans murdered their spouses because, well, that’s one way to end an argument?” I did tell end up telling a sanitised version of the story

So now I hear that Kasiwukira’s wife may or may not have killed him. That, right after Nsenga’s wife is convicted of murdering him. Excuse me but I am not quite as surprised as you are. I haven’t counted but I am pretty sure that for every Kasiwukira or Nsenga, there’s at least 10 other Ugandans who were similarly killed by their spouses. The cat in a steel chamber is dead whether or not you are observing it.

Now I do recognise that I should be outraged because Nsenga and Kasiwukira were rich. And yes, like you, I do have the orientation to think that rich people are more equal than others. That’s why I’d like to become one of them. But are they ten times more equal than others? No, I draw the line at maybe 3. Clap for my humanity. But seriously, we can’t have an epidemic of fatal domestic violence going undeterred and still try to pull off that outpouring of humanity we do every social media minute. It just comes off as false. Yeah, I could join the excitement by weaving a conspiracy about money, power etc but like I said, I was cured of that 5 years ago.

Oh but it is women who killed. How outrageous! A woman is the mother of the nation, the sweet face one dreams of at night. They should not kill. But of course they can be killed. Yeah, for every male spouse killed, at least 6 women bite the dust similarly. And trust me, the numbers of women dying at the hands of their spouses are gravely under reported. Take this: A few weeks ago, I was teaching a data journalism class. Journalists in the room took turns at speaking of some data stories they’d worked on lately. One female journalist said she’d taken a look at Arua police's crime report for the month before and done a story about the high suicide rates in the district. Apparently, 96 people had committed suicide in this one district in one month. “And the other thing about it is that of those 96, only 3 were men. 93 were women.” So, we looked into the typical suicide ratio between men and women globally. It turned out that typically, slightly more men than women commit suicide. So, I asked if she’d looked into the circumstances under which these women supposedly committed suicide. “For most of them, it was after problems in their marriages,” she revealed. And the penny dropped! Consider, that half (yes half!) of married women have been physically assaulted by their spouses (UBOS stat). Remember too, how easily death resulted from these kinds of now ‘regular’ spousal beatings in those reported 86 cases in 2008. Of course, 93 Arua women didn't kill themselves in fits of heartbreak within a single month. A lot of those are spousal murders that the police either didn't want to investigate or was bribed to mislabel.

Things are at a pretty pass. This culture has turned marriage into an existential threat for women. It is dangerously naive to assume that women don’t pick up on the extent of this threat. Or that they all will run those risks forever. Yes, women are saints (feel free to dream of us at night). Only saints would retaliate so infrequently to such levels of violence against them. But also, women are people. People’s strongest instinct is to preserve themselves. We can’t turn marriage into an existential threat to women and just hope that men will remain safe. Of course not. If you beat your wife within inches of death regularly or psychologically torture her by treating her as a sub-human to whom you need to add seven concubines to feel satisfied, be very scared if she’s not retaliating. Either she doesn’t have the means to deal you a similar or worse blow (and that can be fixed) or she’d bidding her time. Either way you are not safe. More women with the means to procure that murderous driver or enough alcohol to do it themselves, will be re-creating that existential crisis our culture has made of marriage -- this time for men. Fix things from their roots or get over it.

God, I hope we choose to fix it by rolling back all the way to that distant sane place in our minds in which all human beings are full human beings.