For Girls Escaping Sexual Abuse, Too Few Safe Spaces

Those who make it to shelters find protection, solace and hope, but a shortage of rehabilitation centers in Uganda thwarts efforts to seek justice.

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For Girls Escaping Sexual Abuse, Too Few Safe Spaces

Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Mega, at a rehabilitation center in Gayaza, Uganda, in April, says she is hopeful about receiving justice.

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BOMBO, UGANDA — Kirabo, 15, plays with her friends at the rehabilitation center where she has lived since November. Before this, Kirabo worked as a maid for a head teacher in her village. She hoped the savings would pay for her secondary education. But eight months into the job, the abuse started.

“One day, as I was working, my boss attacked and raped me,” she says. Kirabo begged him to stop, but he ignored her pleas and warned her never to tell anyone. The abuse persisted for two months, and when the emotional burden became too much to bear, Kirabo talked to her boss’s wife about it. The wife did not believe her. Kirabo, who like other sources in this story is not being identified by her full name to protect her identity, reported the case to the police and since then has been living at the center, which specializes in the rehabilitation of children who have suffered defilement.

Sitting next to Kirabo is 14-year-old Mega. In March, she moved into a one-room house with her biological father, stepmother and 2-month-old stepbrother. Prior to that she was living at her grandmother’s home. At night while everyone else was sound asleep, Mega’s father would move from his bed into hers, which was separated from his by a curtain. He raped her three times that month.

“When I decided to tell my stepmother, she said I was lying,” says Mega. When she couldn’t bear the abuse anymore, Mega walked about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) to the police station to file a complaint against her father. She has been at the center since.

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Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Girls ages 5 to 15 play at a shelter for children who have experienced sexual abuse. Only 18 of Uganda’s 135 districts have such facilities.

Findings in a 2019 policy brief by Save the Children show that only 1 in 4 girls (and 1 in 10 boys) will report sexual violence. According to the 2016 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey, 9.9% of girls ages 15 to 19 have experienced sexual violence. Most of the time, they don’t get justice, and their abusers, who are most often people they know like brothers, uncles, parents or close friends, get away with it.

Kirabo and Mega are just two of the thousands of children in Uganda who every year find themselves living with their abusers with few spaces to find safety as they seek justice. Though the Domestic Violence Act, 2010 calls for the establishment of shelters for those who have suffered gender-based violence (GBV), there aren’t enough available. Only 18 of Uganda’s 135 districts have shelters, with a total capacity of 280 for those who have suffered gender-based violence, according to a 2022 government audit. The Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development did not allocate a budget for the shelters’ day-to-day operations, which were run by nongovernmental organizations financed by development partners. As a result, those who have suffered GBV in the remaining 117 districts have no access to shelter services, or access is expensive. This situation is particularly concerning because some subregions, like Kigezi and Lango, have a high prevalence of intimate partner violence against women and girls but no shelters.

Angela Nakafeero, the commissioner for gender and women’s affairs at the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, says two additional shelters have been set up in the past eight months, with support from the government’s development partners. In August 2022, Nakafeero had said only 20 shelters were available. Three risked closure at the time due to lack of funding.

Laws exist, but implementation low

Light punishments for rape and defilement in some countries and challenges in enforcement for those with stricter laws often make the search for justice an arduous task.

In Senegal, for example, rape wasn’t considered a crime until 2020. Prior to that, it was a misdemeanor, and even then, reported cases were few due to cultural norms that encouraged “hiding a family’s shame” and settling issues within the family. The trivialization and shaming that follow the few who seek justice also greatly deter speaking out.

In Uganda, despite the legal mandate to protect girls who have suffered sexual GBV, those seeking justice have to contend with protracted court cases and low prosecution rates.

Minors find themselves forced to live with or near their abusers, putting them at risk of forced marriages and reducing their chances of getting justice.

Numbers mask the extent of sexual gender-based violence

In 2022, a total of 8,960 cases of defilement were reported to the police, compared with 10,653 cases reported in 2021, according to the 2022 Uganda Police Force Annual Crime Report. Luwero district, where Bombo town is located, was ranked second among districts with the highest number of aggravated defilement cases.

Defilement is defined as the act of having sex with a person under the age of 18. In Uganda, the crime is punishable by life imprisonment or death under the penal code.

A look at teenage pregnancy rates in the country gives a glimpse into how prevalent defilement is.

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Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ

Data from the District Health Officer’s office in Luwero district from 2020 to 2023 shows a yearly increase in the number of registered pregnancies, from 85,474 in 2020 to 99,471 in 2022. During the first quarter of 2023, the district registered 32,324 teenage pregnancies.

“Not all girls that get pregnant were raped, but it gives you a glimpse into the problem,” says Martha Butono, the social welfare officer of Luwero district local government. “For example, on a weekly basis, we handle at least 12 cases of defilement. The ones reported to the police do not give the full picture of the situation on the ground because very few cases make it to the police. The majority are handled by the family.”

National data seems to confirm this upward trend in violence against women and girls. During the coronavirus pandemic, there was a “29% rise in domestic violence cases from 13,693 to 17,664 between 2019 to 2020,” according to a 2022 report from Uganda’s auditor general.

In 2016, only 15% of defilement cases resulted in conviction while 76% were still pending in court, with 7,222 cases under investigation, according to the Annual Justice, Law and Order Sector Performance Report.

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Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ

“Marry-your-rapist” laws

Thousands of girls who suffer sexual GBV in Uganda face an even worse fate than not getting justice. Some are married off to their rapists, or their families receive compensation when matters are handled outside court.

“Quite often, most parents do not want to report. The girls are paid something by the abusers to conceal the rape,” says Nakafeero.

According to a 2021 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report, “marry-your-rapist” laws exist in over 20 countries globally, allowing rapists to marry those they abuse to escape criminal prosecution.

In Uganda, 43% of women ages 25 to 49 were married before age 18, according to the 2016 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey. Arranged marriages for adolescent girls without their consent are also common, especially in rural areas, according to a 2020 UNFPA report.

“There is no political will,” says Diana Nansumba, programs officer for the Center for Domestic Violence and Prevention. “Government is not really in the business of ensuring that the rights of girls and women are protected. If it was, they would allocate enough resources to ensure that girls have somewhere to run away from their abusers. Every time a victim stays with the abuser, that is a threat to their lives.”

GBV shelters as the first port of hope

While shelters are just one part of addressing access to justice for minors who experience sexual GBV, they are important as the first place of solace minors might find immediately after abuse. The shortage of GBV shelters therefore severely complicates access to justice for minors whose situations are often too risky for them to seek justice against perpetrators.

“Lack of GBV shelters affects the dispensation of justice because all the evidence is tampered with when victims and survivors go back. It affects the investigation, and victims are coerced into giving up,” says Butono.

Justice via punishment

Doreen Nambuya, founder of Lupins Africa Rehabilitation Center, says getting justice is an important part of healing for those she has worked with. “When girls hear their perpetrators have escaped, it usually causes a relapse. Getting justice is important as it helps girls to heal and move on,” says Nambuya.

Most girls do not know about GBV shelters or are not lucky enough to get into one like Mega. “Here feels like home. I am aware that my father is on the run, but at least I have registered my case, and I am hopeful that when they catch him, I will receive justice,” she says.

Nambuya says the girls always ask for follow-up on the cases. “They want their abusers punished. However, the legal process is very costly, and this limits our work. We have tried to get funding from the government to no avail. There is a need for government to make funding for shelters a priority.”

The government secured only about 11% of the budget it hoped for in its National Action Plan for Elimination of GBV (2016-2021), according to a 2022 report from Uganda’s auditor general. And 90% of that funding (9 billion Ugandan shillings, or 2.4 million United States dollars) came from donors. Because of this heavy reliance on wealthy donors, efforts to reduce GBV could be deprioritized if donor interest wanes.

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Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda

Kirabo was working as a maid when she was abused. “One day, as I was working, my boss attacked and raped me,” she says.

Though the situation is still bleak, there are some small improvements like the recent addition of two facilities. But Nakafeero says the current recession severely constrains the ministry’s ability to get more funding from government.

GBV advocates like Nansumba say the community also has the mandate to protect abused girls and avoid profiting from their trauma.

“People should speak up against abusers and not protect them. From police avoiding corruption and settling cases out of court, to the government playing its role. There are gaps that need to be filled to foster justice for the victims,” she says.

For girls like Kirabo, GBV shelters are not only a place for healing, but also one for beginning to imagine a life after the pain they have gone through.

“I have chosen to forgive my abuser because it brings me peace,” Kirabo says. “I am excited that I will begin my studies again thanks to this place. For now, I excel in school. I hope to be a teacher one day so that I can protect girls.”

Patricia Lindrio is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.


Patricia Lindrio, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.