KAMPALA, UGANDA — Claire, 14, rocks her fussy baby girl in the nursery one recent afternoon at a shelter for teenage mothers in Kampala, the capital. She appears unsettled and confused as she gazes into the crying child’s eyes. About 5 feet tall, Claire looks like an older sister soothing a sibling.
Claire was raped last year. She and her mother went to the police, who arrested her assailant. He was later released.
“It hurt seeing him every day after the release,” says Claire, who asked not to be fully identified to protect herself from undue stigma.
Claire was among thousands of children sexually assaulted in the wake of the country’s coronavirus restrictions in 2020. After the pandemic erupted last March, the government instructed people to stay home. The lockdown, enacted to help people protect themselves and others, Ugandan police say, instead made youngsters and teenagers easy prey for attackers.
Officials and activists say the cases of sexual intercourse with someone younger than 18, known as “defilement,” highlight a multifaceted failure — on the part of police, parents and government agencies — to protect some of the most vulnerable Ugandans.
“It is not going to change unless parents and children work together with the government, and report and stop enabling offenders,” says Angela Nakafeero, commissioner for gender and women affairs in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.
Police statistics for last year are still unpublished, but the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development reports that 7,200 children were defiled in the first six months of 2020. For all of 2019, police recorded nearly 13,700 such cases.
In an unprecedented move, the Uganda National Examinations Board allowed pregnant students to take their exams, noting in a press statement that “the lockdown due to COVID-19 has been a very tough period, especially for the girl child. We have received reports that a number of them became pregnant during this season.”
The board added, “Many of [the pregnant girls] are traumatized, and denying them the opportunity to take their final examinations would be double jeopardy.”
During the coronavirus lockdown, Jannat, 14, stayed with her grandmother. One day, when she was out of the house, a family friend came over. After he raped her, she says, he threatened to kill her if she told anyone.
Her father and grandmother also urged her silence.
Jannat defied them and told the local media about the rape and resulting pregnancy. “I don’t think I can go back to school because everyone knows what happened,” she says, asking not to use her full name out of concern about stigmatization. “But I hope my daughter can have that chance. No one knows her.”
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Claire’s trauma came indirectly from the lockdown’s economic impact. Like many Ugandans during the pandemic, her family struggled. Her mother had no work, and the family barely had enough food, Claire says.
To help with expenses, Claire sold water from a neighborhood tap. One afternoon, her boss, who also owned a bar, told Claire to serve beer to a man who was a stranger to the girl. The boss left the two alone.
The stranger ordered Claire to lie down on a mattress behind the counter. She refused.
“I was screaming but could not hear my voice,” she says. “He put his hand on my mouth, and I don’t remember the rest.”
Ugandan police admitted a struggle to address defilement even before the pandemic. “Defilement still poses a big problem to the Police,” according to a 2019 annual crime report. The number of cases in 2019, it says, “is unacceptable.”
Challenges include delays in reporting the crime, bribery of police and “a lack of sufficient infrastructure to keep evidence,” says Twine Charles, public relations officer at Uganda Police’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations.
A policy brief by Save the Children, an international nongovernmental organization, revealed that in a 2015 survey, 1 in 4 girls (and 1 in 10 boys), ages 13 to 17, said they had experienced sexual violence in the past year. Most children do not report such incidents to authorities, in part because of the stigma attached to sexual abuse. In fact, the brief says, parents often refuse to allow children to report the crime.
The result: Justice is rarely done in defilement cases.
The 2019 crime report found that police made arrests in less than half of the cases reported that year. Of those cases, only about 17% have ended in convictions.
Femme Power, a group that advocates for people who have experienced sexual assault, has launched an online petition demanding that police start a sex offender registry. It has drawn more than 4,800 signatures.
“It is sick that rapists walk around us daily,” says activist Catherine Komugisha, who works with Femme Power. “The reported are not prosecuted because of the flaws in the system. Easily identifying an offender online can shame and deter others.”
Courts house registered cases of sex offenders, police officials say, but files are not easily accessible to the public. Twine says police are working to change that system.
A public offender registry may help, but Uganda also needs more courts, judges and psychosocial services for those who have experienced sexual assault, says another activist, Annabelle Nakabiri Ssebakijje.
Nakafeero, of the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, warns the scourge of defilement reflects a deeper crisis.
“Sex in our culture is idolized,” she says. “Men are rewarded for sexual assaults by being praised for their conquests. Having a sex offenders registry is not going to help. Individual attitudes need to change if defilement cases are to reduce.”