(Refiles to add missing word "Uganda" in para 4)
By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, Dec 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Uganda is holding special court sessions for crimes against women to slash a backlog of thousands of rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence cases, U.N. and government officials said.
Half of Ugandan women and girls aged between 15 and 49 years face domestic or sexual violence from their husbands or partners - higher than the global average of 35 percent, says the United Nations.
Thousands of cases have languished for years due to a lack of judges and courts, say experts, creating a culture of impunity and leaving victims unable to get justice and move on with their lives.
"Gender-based violence cases can take up to six years to conclude in the Ugandan courts. The special sessions aim to hear and conclude cases within one month," said Alain Sibenaler, Uganda head of the U.N. Population Fund, which is supporting the project.
"There is a high level of acceptability with gender-based violence but if justice is seen to be done speedily, it will help create a sense that impunity is over."
Thirteen courts across the east African nation are hearing only cases related to crimes against women from Nov. 12 to Dec. 15 in the project's first phase, said Sibenaler, adding that the duration and court numbers will be expanded next year.
Ugandan women and girls face various forms of violence ranging from sexual harassment and rape to child marriage and domestic abuse, say government officials. Such crimes make up 60 percent of all cases in the high court.
Forty percent of women are married before the age of 18, one in five women have faced sexual violence, and one in four girls are pregnant before 19, according to a 2016 government survey.
Crimes such as wife battering are widely tolerated - with almost 50 percent of women and over 40 percent of men agreeing it is justified for a man to beat his wife for some reasons, the same survey found.
Ugandan government data shows that over 30,000 cases of child rape and domestic violence were reported in 2017 - yet more than 155,000 cases are pending before Uganda's courts.
Government officials said they hoped to hear and conclude about 1,000 cases through the special court sessions being held in areas ranging from Moroto and Kapchorwa in the east, to Gulu and Lira in the north, as well as in the capital Kampala.
Court staff - judges, prosecutors, defence lawyers and clerks - have been given specific training on how to deal sensitively with traumatised survivors.
"Of course, we realise there is a lot of work to be done in terms of prevention and we need to do much more in sensitising communities about gender-based violence," judiciary spokesman Solomon Muyita told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"But these special court sessions can help in curbing such crimes. If people see someone going to court quickly and being punished, it will send a strong message that you cannot do this and get away with it."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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