Defilement in Uganda: The silent epidemic

By Josephine Namusisi-Riley

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About six years ago a very close relative of mine was faced with the horrendous fact that her six-year-old granddaughter Dina, had been raped, by a farm hand in her home. It is impossible to imagine the trauma this angelic child experienced, or the devastation her grandmother felt upon that realisation.

Like so many parents in Uganda and elsewhere, Dina’s care had been entrusted to an older and experienced family member; her grandmother, in the full trust and reasonable expectation she would be safe from harm. This was shattered the day a relative saw Dina upset and on close inspection noticed blood on her clothes.  On being questioned, Dina explained how the farm hand, Kato, had taken her into his room and forced himself upon her a number of times. She was in pain but had been told not to tell anyone.

When the farm hand was confronted, his first reaction was to ask if he was at risk of catching HIV from the child. The full horror of what he had done was completely lost on him. The police were called; but within days, he had been released from custody, a travesty, which occurs more often than not in cases of sexual abuse in Uganda.

In some regions, justice comes second place when police are offered cash bribes in exchange for freedom. These out-of-court settlements are illegal, but the harsh reality is that trial proceedings will sway in the favour of the highest bidder.

In this case, Dina’s family decided to focus their energy on rehabilitating her, instead of pursuing an unfruitful case against the farm hand, who is likely to have bought his freedom.

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Dina’s innocence was cruelly taken by this man, and following the attack, she became withdrawn. Her grandmother was kind and wanted to do everything she could to repair the emotional damage, to reinstate a sense of normality for the child, but this was impossible. Dina’s grandmother was consumed by guilt, she couldn’t forgive herself for failing to notice the abuse that went on, undetected until that day.

As a woman, she herself lived in an abusive relationship; tormented mentally emotionally and physically by her husband. In the end, she left him to set up her own home, a sanctuary of peace for her and her children.

Dina’s parents suffered from guilt too, for exposing their child to abuse. Unfortunately their experience is not unique. Save the Children Uganda analysed the country’s Police Crime Report back in 2007, which revealed ‘over 25 children are defiled every day in Uganda which further translates into two children every hour.’

I doubt that accurate numbers exist, with many parents choosing not to report cases of defilement. Social stigma means the child will be viewed as ‘damaged goods’ in later life, bringing shame to the family.

Uganda’s daily newspaper New Vision reported “Half of criminal cases reported to police are about defilement of children. This means that the biggest number of crimes committed in this country is against children,”  and quoted the Minister for Economy, Henry Banyenzaki saying defilement was “silently ruining the country’s next generation.”

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Where statistics are hard to verify, I am certain that almost every adult in Uganda will know a child who has been sexually abused or exploited. And what do we choose to do? In many cases, turn a blind eye, in order to protect family reputations, allowing the perpetrators of these hideous crimes to go unpunished. We ignore the innocent sufferers and instead carry on as if nothing happened.

The one question I am dying to ask is how we would feel if this happened to our own flesh and blood? I know what I would do and it is not appropriate to put into print in this blog! I think it’s time for children to have their voices heard. We need clear, strong laws that protect children but also that publicly state that if you abuse a child, you will be severely punished.

For too long, sexual abuse against children has been hushed up in Uganda, swept under the carpet and it is this stigma, shame and secrecy that allows abuse to permeate the core of our society, generation after generation.

It is our duty to protect our children, so I would like to call upon every man and woman to declare boldly that we will not be silent about this problem, we will empower our children by giving them the courage and tools to speak out.

At a community level we need to talk to our children about the dangers out there. As parents, we need our children to understand that their safety is the most important thing to us. School teachers, churches, we all need to unite and speak with one voice against this evil. If we don’t, then we all share the guilt of abandoning our children to suffer abuse in silence.

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