and Conasn Businge
EIGHT girls aged 11-15 are roughly ushered into Gulu Police Station, at around 5:00pm, on a cold evening. There is a mixture of hatred, anger and nervousness on their faces. It is surprising why these girls, at their age, should be dragged to a police station. Surprisingly, all of them have been rounded up, on charges of prostitution.
Child prostitution, according to the UN, is: â€œâ€¦the sexual exploitation of a child for remuneration in cash or in kind, usually, but not always organised by an intermediaryâ€¦â€ Ugandan laws prohibit prostitution and having sex with an under-18 girl.
The Gulu Police Commander, Yasin Ndimwibo, says these girls were seen in the company of much older men who were not their relatives. â€œThis, unfortunately, is not the first time some of these girls have been arrested for prostitution,â€ he says, pointing to a girl seated with her head propped up in her hands.
As they are being screened by Gulu Police Community liaison officer, ASP Johnson Kilama, the girls spill out their sad stories of abandonment, desperation and eventual exploitation by â€˜madamsâ€™ who rent them out to older men in return for cash.
It also becomes apparent that many are enrolled in school, but, in order to make ends meet, they have chosen to drop out to pursue a living on the fringes of society, exploited by unscrupulous pimps and overexposed to sexually transmitted diseases.
Kilama notes down the stories, occasionally shaking his head in bewilderment. The stories are essentially the same except for the ages and places of origin.
It is a nightmare to hear the names and ages of the children called out on account of prostitution. Pamela, 13, from Layibi Central; Anne, 11, from Laroo; Getrude, 15, from Bobi; Kelly, 12, from Acet; Angela, 11, from Kitgum.
And there is the story of Margaret, 14, a pupil in one of the primary schools in Gulu. She was born in Lacor, where she grew up during the war, constantly shifting homes as the security deteriorated. Though enrolled in school, she began slipping away from classes, running away to loiter around the town.
Her situation improved when a friend of the family brought her to Gulu town to work as a house girl, while attending school. But the arrangement did not last.
Margaret increasingly spent more time running around with boys in the neighbourhood. Margaret was returned to her parents in Lacor. The timing of Margaretâ€™s return home was disastrous because her mother was now seriously ill from HIV/AIDS and admitted at Lacor Hospital.
Her father was away most of the time, living in destitution and unable to provide for his family. Life at home was not an option for Margaret, so she escaped back to Gulu town.
It was in the town that she was lured into a child prostitution ring organised by â€˜madamâ€™ who spoke many languages and often negotiated the price of sex with men who spoke languages that Margaret could not understand.
The arrangement was exceedingly simple. The â€˜madamâ€™ provides shelter, food and a little money for personal care so that the girls were clean enough to gain the attention of men.
At dusk, the sex clients congregate in madamâ€™s home, or in a nearby bar. The madam carefully makes it known that she has young girls for sexual hire â€” the rate strictly determined by the length of time the customer will spend with the girl. One night could bring in as much as sh5,000-sh10,000. The girls are carefully coached to say they are aged 15 or older.
With negotiations concluded, and money paid to madam, the girl walks away with the client for the evening, often returning in the morning after a night of sexual favours. Madam, meanwhile, is already at work arranging for other clients.
It is common for a girl to spend the night with three or four different men, some of them students from nearby secondary schools, while others are men in transit to southern Sudan or to Kampala who need quick sexual fix with girls half their age. A girl is lucky if she receives sh2,000 or sh3,000 for a night of hard work.
Many are clearly overwhelmed by the brutality of rape, but have chosen to go on because they do not see hope anywhere else. This is just one of the cases, out of the thousand others in the country.
According to the International Labour Organisation/International Programme on Elimination of Child Labour, there are estimated 7,000 to 12,000 children involved in prostitution in Uganda.
A study done in Nakulabye (a Kampala suburb) by Slum Aid Project, revealed that the number of child prostitutes is increasing and more girls are participating in the practice at a tender age.
In a report that was released by Women and Youth Services in 2002, long distance truck drivers were cited among the biggest users of child prostitutes.
Child prostitution was found to be common in truck driversâ€™ stopover towns such as Idudi, Naluwerere, Lukaya and Ntungamo. The majority of children involved in commercial sex were between 8-18 years. Most of them are school drop outs. Most of the commercial sex takes place in lodges, while a few do it in bushes or in trucks.
According to the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN), research findings suggest that these days girls find themselves in prostitution at a younger age than before.
The ANPPCAN communications officer, Joshua Lubandi says nowadays the Eastern part of the country has the highest number of child prostitutes.
â€œWe have put up a programme, to cater for the increasing number of child prostitutes, in Busia. This involves blocking child trafficking, senstising the community of dangers in prostitution and helping disburse the child prostitutes to rehabilitation centres.â€
Lubandi adds that they are working alongside other organisations like the Uganda Youth Development Link, and Slum Aid Project, to rehabilitate these children. Unfortunately, child rehabilitation centres are hard to come by.
Kilama is frustrated with the lack of juvenile rehabilitation centre in Gulu. â€œWhat we have here is a tragedy of serious magnitude that the world must respond to immediately. We need a juvenile centre away from Gulu town where we can have these children rehabilitated, taught life skills, self confidence and hygiene so that they can avoid prostitution as a source of money,â€ he says.
The only rehabilitation centres currently available in Gulu for juveniles are located in Lamogi, Anaka, Lalogi and Palaro. What is more, the centres operate only on 24 hour referrals after which the children are let go and not retained for longer periods, say, three months.
The State Minister for Gender (women) Rukiya Isanga says the Government is tabling a tougher law to curb child prostitution. â€œWe are also doing our best to make sure that there are more rehabilitation centres created in the country, to help those girls already swept into prostitution, and to curb the escalation of this vice.
Unfortunately, every additional day with no action ensures that more girls are stolen by prostitution.
12,000 child prostitutes in Uganda