• Oct 11, 2021 . 12 min Read
  • How closure of schools over COVID-19 exposed girls to sex offenders

How closure of schools over COVID-19 exposed girls to sex offenders
Ritah Mukasa
Journalist @New Vision

Uganda was already grappling with teenage pregnancies even before the outbreak of COVID-19. However, the pandemic, which led to the closure of schools, has made the already dire situation worse, with reports of pregnant girls being filed from all corners of the country. In Naguru, Kampala, several girls (aged 12-17 years) have been defiled and are pregnant, while others have already given birth. Abandoned and desperate, two Good Samaritans set up a shelter where they rehabilitate the child-parents. The girls recounted their ordeals.

Jane is just 15 years old. By the time schools closed in March last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she was in Primary Five at one of the schools in Naguru, Kampala.

She is the fifth born in a family of seven siblings. Her father is a security guard, while her mother is a housewife. All had been well with the teenager.

According to her mother, Jane loved school and always fussed about being a doctor.

Unfortunately, on one fateful night in March this year, she was set up by her friends and was raped by a bodaboda rider. This happened at a friend’s birthday party.

“I had been to a few friends’ parties and I enjoyed them. When they invited me again, I was excited,” Jane recalls, adding that she sought permission from her mother, who cautioned her to take care of herself and return before dark.

They live in a slum. The streets and corridors are not void of criminals. It, is, therefore, risky to move at night.

Jane left home at about 2:30 pm. At the party, they had snacks at about 5:30 pm, before cutting cake. There were about eight girls and three boys.

However, at about 7:00 pm, she asked her friends to see her off, but they convinced her to hold on for a few minutes and that they would leave together.

She shifted her attention to watching a television drama. One by one, they disappeared behind her back.

Before she knew it, she was left with the birthday girl and her younger siblings. Their parents had travelled upcountry.

“I pleaded with her to escort me, but she refused, saying she was busy,” she recollects.

It was about 11:45 pm and I had no choice but to leave. However, she says before she could move 100 metres, a man grabbed her, covered her mouth and put her down. She tried to fight him off, but he punched her in the face and ribs. Her nose bled. He then raped her.

“I was in pain and crying, but he did not stop. I recognised him,” she says.

Jane and her parents reported the matter to a nearby Police post. In the morning, a bodaboda rider called Abdul was arrested. It was also discovered that he was a serial rapist when four girls came out to pin him.

“He was hostile and kept shouting obscenities. He threatened to pour acid on me if the case got taken to court,” she says.

Abdul was later released on Police bond after his wife pledged to treat Jane for the wounds she had sustained. Unfortunately, after the release, Abdul’s family disappeared.

“My friends advised me to abort, but dad refused, saying it was against our Islamic faith,” she says.

Jane is eight months pregnant and goes to Kiswa Health Centre IV for antenatal. She joined Teen Mums, a non-profit organisation in Naguru, Kampala, where she receives psychological and emotional support.

“I used to cry uncontrollably. I hated myself and attempted suicide twice, but the counselling, love and care I received helped me heal,” she narrates.

Jane hopes to go back to school and achieve her dream.

Some of the pregnant teenagers at the facility.

Some of the pregnant teenagers at the facility.

Defiled at 12

Eunice, 12, is due to give birth next week. By the time schools closed, she was in Primary Four in a school in Rukungiri district. She was living with her grandmother after her father abandoned them and her mother moved to Kampala to look for work.

“My dad abandoned us when I was a baby and this hurts,” she says while fighting back tears.

Eunice dreamed of being a teacher.

In school, she was a reserved girl who steered clear of trouble. She had only one friend; her namesake and agemate, whom she trusted so much.

But she betrayed her. In January, Eunice went about her home chores without incident; washing utensils and sweeping the house before going to the garden. When she returned at about 1:00 pm, she found her friend waiting for her. The friend convinced her to escort her home. At the home, they found a man waiting.

“I hesitated, but my friend pushed me towards him, saying the man would give us money if I entered the house with him,” she narrates. Her friend’s parents were away in the garden.

Eunice attempted to run, but the man grabbed her and carried her inside her friend’s house. The friend disappeared.

“I tried to scream, but he covered my mouth with his hand. He tore my clothes and raped me. The pain was unbearable,” she adds.

Later, the man threatened to kill Eunice if she told anybody about it.

“I did not tell my grandmother, but she discovered I was pregnant after a few weeks. I was vomiting and had cravings as well,” she remembers.

Her grandmother was furious. She chased her away from home.

“I went to my uncle’s place and he got me transport to Kampala. I now stay with my mother in Mbuya. She is a food vendor,” Eunice says.

Her uncle tried to find the rapist, but he left Rukungiri for Kampala.

“I have not bought anything for the baby because mum does not have money,” she shares, adding: “If only dad was around, maybe he would protect me. I want to find him.”

He left me with HIV and a pregnancy

Fifteen-year-old Shakira lives in Naguru with her mother, a street vendor who singlehandedly looks after five children. Shakira is the firstborn. She gave birth on August 31 at Naguru China Friendship Hospital to a baby girl, who she says was rejected by the father.

She named her baby after herself.

Shakira completed primary school last year and passed with a first grade.

She loves sciences and wants to be a pharmacist.

Her mother says Shakira was a lively girl who grew up so fast and took care of her siblings while she went to vend vegetables in the Kampala suburbs. She had experienced most of the bad things poverty throws at a teenager, but she remained focused on her education. Unfortunately, Shakira got pregnant. She says she saw it coming, but she had no choice.

Her siblings had to survive.

Girls participate in fun activities at the Dreams Slum Project shelter in Naguru, Kampala.

Girls participate in fun activities at the Dreams Slum Project shelter in Naguru, Kampala.

It all started when her mother went for a two-week training over the February general election. She left the family with food for only two days.

When the food got finished, Shakira resorted to begging from neighbours to feed her siblings, aged between four and 10 years. By the second week, she had run out of kind people.

One day, they were so hungry and at night her siblings failed to sleep. They threw tantrums, but she had nothing to feed them. In the morning, she looked around for anyone who could help. She approached a bodaboda rider who had been a casual friend.

She had known him for a few months.

He offered to feed the family for the days they wanted, but in exchange for sex.

“I gave in. He would call me to his room daily for sex and after, he would give me sh6,000,” she says.

For two months, Shakira missed her periods. She was also throwing up. Her mother was enraged. She threatened to throw her out of their rented room, but neighbours calmed her down. The man disappeared.

Shakira joined Teen Moms, where she received counselling and material help for the baby. She quickly wiped her tears and became the lively girl she once was. Throughout her pregnancy, she was the life of the group, who counselled her colleagues to have a positive attitude and keep their hope alive.

Sadly, Shakira’s cheerfulness ended in the hospital when she went to give birth. She was told she was HIV-positive.

She had attended antenatal a couple of times from a clinic where they did not check her status.

“I was broken. I felt like dying,” she shares while sobbing.

I delivered the baby alone

Rebecca grew up with a single mother and brother in Buwama village on the Kampala-Masaka road. Her mum died when she was in lower primary. She moved to live with her grandfather until Senior Two when she was thrown out by her aunties and uncles. She moved to her father’s home in Kalisizo, Masaka, but she did not warm up to her stepmother.

In 2018, she passed O’level with a second grade. However, for some reason, her father kept her home for a year. Around that time, a male friend promised her a job in Lyantonde, but betrayed her and took her to his home for a wife.

“I was 16, hoping to complete my education, not getting married. This friend conspired with his mum and married me,” she says.

When Rebecca conceived, life became a vale of tears. Her boyfriend abandoned her and disappeared to Kampala and remarried. Rebecca moved to her mother-in-law’s home, where they did odd jobs to make ends meet. She would, on many days, stomach. Luckily, she gave birth and when the baby made five months, she joined her relatives in Kampala. Early 2020, one of the relatives hired her to hawk clothes for sh1,000 a day and this could not sustain her and the baby. She persevered for a few months until she gave up and looked for another job.

She was hired to clean a new estate in Najeera, Kampala.

It had eight units and she mopped them every day at sh70,000 a month. Fast forward, she fell in love with a shamba boy and conceived again at 18.

“He was a friend who cared. I needed someone to be there for me. But he disappeared after I became pregnant,” she says.

Rebecca continued working and staying in one of the stores at the estate. Nine months later, in May 2021, the baby was ready to come, but she had not prepared for it.

Zhane Omunyidde with a baby and a teenage mother.

Zhane Omunyidde with a baby and a teenage mother.

“It was about 3:40 pm. The labour pains intensified. I was with my two-year-old daughter in the room,” she recalls.

“I got off the mattress and pushed the baby while shouting for help. Neighbours came 20 minutes after I had delivered,” she remembers.

Rebecca did not know what to do with the baby. One of the neighbours cut the cord and rushed the duo to a clinic.

“The placenta was still stuck inside. The nurses did their best and rescued the baby and me,” she adds.

The following week, Rebecca lost her job and was evicted as well.

She found a home in a nearby church, where Gloria Nyakato, the founder of Teen Moms, rescued her and her two children. She recently got a sponsor to take her back to school. She wants to be an accountant.

Challenges

According to Zhane Omunyidde, the co-founder of Engender Girls' Mentorship, the number of adolescents under their preventive programme increases by the day as long as schools remain closed, and yet the financial resources are depleting. She appeals for support.

Her partner, Nyakato, has seen teenage mothers getting depressed.

Some attempt unsafe abortions, while others hate their babies and harm them.

Also, some rapists bribe poor parents and law enforcement officers to get away with the crimes.

Omunyidde plans to get a lawyer to help the victims find justice.

There is also limited parental involvement in grooming teenagers because parents are preoccupied with making ends meet.

Omunyidde adds that the current environment does not encourage girls to report defilement or freely express themselves.

“We need to increase awareness on the dangers of teenage pregnancies,” she suggests, adding: “Follow up on cases; guidance and counselling are crucial.”

She calls for increased budget allocation towards cases of teenage pregnancies through support to teenage mother centres.

Omunyidde also says the education ministry should enact policies that permit pregnant mothers to enrol in school.

Tackling teenage pregnancies

Pregnant teenage girls hardly speak out after being abused.

Most have been judged and silenced by society. It is against this background that Josephine Zhane Omunyidde, founder of Engender Girls’ Mentorship and Gloria Nyakato, founder of Teen Mums Voice, have teamed up to empower girls through the Dreams Slum Project.

Gloria Nyakato (right) and another volunteer at the shelter.

Gloria Nyakato (right) and another volunteer at the shelter.

They focus on prevention and strive to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies. They uplift, mentor and support underprivileged pregnant girls.

“We have a generation of broken girls who have lost hope. It is silently eating up our society,” Nyakato notes.

“We record a new case every week in Naguru. However, many girls go through our hands in Kampala, Mbale and Busia,” she adds.

The girls are referred to them by health personnel, local leaders and other teenage girls they support.

The duo avail expectant teenage mothers with birth kits, clothing and antenatal care to prevent complications during and after birth.

“We also talk to parents who chase away girls from home when they conceive,” Nyakato adds.

Omunyidde says rape, defilement and forced sex work increased when schools closed.

Schools had been safe spaces for the girls, but the lockdown exposed them to sex offenders.

The ugly spectre of teenage mothers, fathers

Eyotoru, a single mother and resident of Naguru, Kampala, has two children; an 18-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl, Patience.

Eyotoru works as a househelp for a family in Lugogo, where she earns sh150,000. She lost her parents when she was a child and was raised by relatives in Arua.

When she turned 13, she travelled to Kampala to work as a maid. A few years later, she was raped by a security guard and conceived.

She found a home on the streets of Kampala, where she was raped again and conceived her daughter Patience in 2003.

By the time schools closed last year, Patience was in Senior Three at Kololo SS. The son completed Senior Four.

“Patience was a good girl until she joined secondary school. She teamed up with naughty students,” Eyotoru shares.

She adds that when schools closed, her daughter became unruly. She would disappear for days with her three friends and when she returned, she would remain quiet. By February, two of Patience’s friends had conceived.

“When I heard the news, I knew my daughter was next. Those girls were inseparable,” she says.

True to her fears, Patience is now five months pregnant.

“The father is a Senior Three student, a neighbour,” Eyotoru says as tears roll down her face.

“I worked hard for my children to have a bright future. My daughter has followed in my tracks,” she adds.

As she narrates, Patience does not utter a word.

Names have been changed for privacy

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