As Kenya sacks more than 1,000 of its teachers for sexually abusing girls, some organisations are highlighting the issue of sex crimes against children in Uganda. According to Save the Children Uganda, in 2007 over 12,000 cases of ‘defilement’ were reported to the Ugandan police, which equates to around 25 children being abused every day.
The Ugandan legal system defines ‘defilement’ as “the act of having sex with a girl under 18”. If the girl is between 14 and 18, a prison sentence is imposed where men are convicted. In cases where the abuse is carried out by a relative, particularly if it concerns a young child or the victim contracts HIV/AIDS, those convicted can face capital punishment.
However, many cases of sexual abuse never come to trial. Men often target girls from extremely poor areas. This means that if parents discover the abuse, bribes can be offered to silence families. This kind of negotiation isn’t legal, but with high levels of poverty and illiteracy in rural communities, families often accept payments, desperate for the money. Seeking justice for their daughters takes second place to feeding and clothing the family.
One aid organisation working in the country, the St Nicholas Uganda Children’s Fund, says that poor girls are especially vulnerable to attacks from men as they travel to and from school. Often children walk long distances to reach their classes, travelling through dangerous neighbourhoods at dawn and dusk. Girls most at risk are those in the higher primary classes. Some only reach the sixth or seventh primary grades when they are teens, held back some years due to lack of school fees. This means they’re old enough to be attractive targets not only for rape, but also bribery, where men offer money in return for sex.
In young girls, sexual abuse can lead to lasting trauma, infertility and in the worst cases the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS. This is why many schools in Uganda are supporting the government’s Aids Strategy for Communication to Youth programme. This initiative aims to ensure that all young people are advised in schools about the dangers of early sex.
But not all girls enter into sexual relations willingly and if they do so, often they’re seduced by people in a position of trust, like teachers, or men they know. And when families are involved or become complicit in covering up abuse, it is hard for officials to act. Aid and health organisations are urging the Ugandan government to set up an organised system for birth registration. This would allow officials to track and protect children more effectively. Currently, many have no birth certificates, so it’s impossible to proceed in cases of abuse, prostitution or early marriages, because there’s no proof of the child’s age. It is to be hoped the government in Uganda will take a leaf out of Kenya’s book and see that if any progress is to be made with this widespread problem, it is now time to act.