In Uganda, Childhood Sexual Assault Is An Epidemic

by Sharon Lamwaka


“Don’t talk to any strangers. Don’t accept anything from a stranger.” These phrases are very common to many Ugandan children. Parents and guardians warn their children to keep away from strangers on safety grounds. Due to the constant repetition of these words, children have quite learned not to talk to strangers.

Lucy [not her real name] is like any other child: she’s playful, inquisitive, and she loves school. One morning while on a bathroom break, a man who was working on a construction site next to the open school that Lucy attends lured the little 6-year-old girl away from the school compound. In a building next to the school, the man whose face Lucy was familiar with then went on to sexually molest her.

With a bloodied uniform, Lucy slowly walked back to school. Her teachers called her mother who took her from school informing her that her daughter had injured herself while playing. Her mother had no reason to doubt the school authorities; after all, Lucy has two older siblings attending the same school.

The observant mother of five noticed that all was not well with her little girl. On careful and close examination of her little girl’s genitalia, the mother suspected the worst. She immediately took her child to a nearby clinic for medical examination. The medical facility confirmed the mother’s suspicion—sexual penetration. The little girl was referred to Mulago Hospital, Uganda’s national referral hospital for better management. This molestation was to mark the long arduous journey Lucy would begin on her rehabilitation recovery process. With a ruptured birth canal and pus oozing daily from Lucy’s now infected genitalia, her mother cried day and night why the perpetrator chose her child.

Lucy’s story is one of many that children grapple with in Uganda. Many children who are sexually molested in Uganda suffer both emotional and physical consequences. While the physical consequences are overt, the reverse is untrue for emotional consequences. Physical consequences can be readily observed and action taken. On the other hand, emotional consequences such as posttraumatic stress disorder, fear, and sadness, to mention a few are not readily observable or if they are, caretakers are ignorant of the connection between sequaelae and the trauma suffered.

The latest statistics of the Annual Crime and Traffic/Road Safety Report 2013 of the Uganda Police Force reported defilement as the leading sex-related crime reported in Uganda. Defilement continues to lead in sex-related crimes.

A total of 9,598 cases were reported and investigated in 2013. Further, the report notes that defilement was the second leading crime committed in Uganda in 2013. The non-sex offense crime that topped the list of reported cases in 2013 was common assaults. While a total of 9,598 cases were reported and investigated in 2013, 4,931 cases were taken to court, out of which 359 cases secured convictions, 38 cases were acquitted, 248 cases were dismissed and 4,288 cases were still pending in court, representing four percent of conviction rate for perpetrators of defilement.

One may therefore ask, why is the conviction rate so low? Beatrice Gonza has been working with Uganda Police Force for 24 years. She is the officer in charge of Child and Family Protection Unit at Nansana Police Station. She notes that for a perpetrator to be convicted, it requires the cooperation of both witnesses and the state.

“The conviction rate is so low because witnesses at times do not attend Court to give evidence against the accused,” says Gonza.

This is further exacerbated by failure of people who have filed cases with the police to follow up cases, prompting courts to withdraw them due to lack of witnesses. She further said that at times, the residing magistrates are transferred before completing the case; therefore accused persons are not convicted and sentenced. Resident state attorneys [government prosecutors] and directorate of public prosecution personnel don’t always present evidence in time, further crippling cases. All this against the backdrop of long court processes that demoralize those reporting cases in the hope of achieving justice for their loved ones.





The major causes of defilement among cases filed and investigated at Nansana Police Station are: poor parenting, domestic violence, child neglect, drug addiction, lack of employment, and hooliganism. This could partly explain failure of witnesses to follow up on cases. Over 90 percent of children received at Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence, a local NGO that rehabilitates survivors of Sexual/Gender Based Violence report that children are molested by someone known to them or their parents or guardians.

“The perpetrators of defilement that we have received and documented are step fathers, neighbors, family friends and biological fathers,” says Charlotte Kabachaki, a social worker at RECESVID. Yet ironically, unbeknown to parents and guardians, the people they trust most with their children are the ones who molest them. Parents and guardians continually educate their children to keep away from strangers when the actual enemy is within a child’s comfort zone at home and school. In Lucy’s case, the school management knew the perpetrator but chose to protect him instead. On the other hand, police would have forced the school to provide details of the perpetrator but this was not the case.

“Most perpetrators of defilement that we receive are educated people; for example teachers; uneducated people, for example drug abusers and idlers, and relatives who commit acts of incest,” says Gonza.

The law that Lucy’s mother had hoped would assist her to have her daughter’s molester arrested, convicted, and kept from doing the same to other children failed her. Instead, she was left with a huge burden of weekly medical treatments over a year that nearly saw her give up on her little girl. The financial cost of treating her daughter was so colossal so much so that Lucy’s mother started relying on hand-outs from well-wishers to meet the medical bills of her daughter.

In a country where law enforcement rely on physical evidence to make arrests, Lucy’s school failed her by refusing to cooperate with the police. And while Lucy has recovered considerably from the physical wounds left behind following her ordeal, the price the little girl has paid through no crime of her own is to stagnate at school. She has since failed to make any meaningful academic progress as she continues to discharge from her genitalia. As she grows older, there is no telling if other consequences of her childhood sexual abuse may manifest later in life either physically or emotionally. Only time will tell.

Photo via Uganda_8

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