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Safe spaces helping sexually abused teenage girls survive trauma

By Jacky Achan

Added 20th November 2018 06:36 PM

Children less than 18 are left on their own to fend for themselves. Alone these children are become candidates for sex abuse and end up sexually assaulted.

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Children less than 18 are left on their own to fend for themselves. Alone these children are become candidates for sex abuse and end up sexually assaulted.

 Sarah Kiconco is lost for words and can only sob. At 16 years, she is already a mother to an eight months baby.
 
It takes a lot of convincing from a community worker for Kiconco to come out of her bedroom and open up about her story.
 
“I do not know where he is, I saw him a couple of times on my way to school and then he disappeared. I was used to seeing him on my way to school and would greet him. One day he told me that he loves me and we got intimate.
 
I was scared and did not know what would happen. I accepted his advances because he had promised to take care of my school needs. But after a while, I noticed my body changing, I was found to be pregnant. On trying to reach him, he was long gone, we could not find him,” she says.
 
Kiconco does not know much about the man who got her pregnant at 16 years, “he was staying in town as he worked on the road, if I see him, I can remember him, I would like him to help take care of the baby,” she says.
 
Like that is not enough, her older sister Joan Nin siima 17, has two babies from the Kamwenge-Fortportal road workers who all abandoned her.
 
She was just 14 years and in Primary seven when she got pregnant with the first child. “He had promised to buy for me scholastic materials and take care of me.
 
But, when I got pregnant he denied responsibility,” she says. Desperate to find support after giving birth, Ninsiima got into a relationship with another road worker.
 
“They were picking sand near our home. He promised to take care of me and my child; we got into a brief relationship staying together. I got pregnant and gave birth to my second child but he left,” she says.
 
“I gave you the child but I cannot take care of him” those were his parting words to Ninsiima who can’t even trace his whereabouts. She only knows the district he hails from.
 
Their grandmother is taking care of both of them and their children. “There is nothing to do,” she says.
 

 “I go dig in people’s gardens for money and also dig in my own garden for food and sell out off what remains. I use the money to buy necessities such as salt, cooking oil, sugar and soap. When it comes to soap, I even have to cut them in pieces and distribute to each one of them so that it’s not quickly used up,” she adds.

But Tereza Tumuhirwe is 70 years old. “I do not have the energy anymore. I am taking care of all my grandchildren and their children, my children passed away.
 
My husband is 80 and reduced to the chair, he is too old to help. I work and leave something’s to God, what I eat is what they eat” she says.
 
What went wrong?
 
Kamwenge district senior probation and welfare officer Gerald Bbaale says some constructors of the Kamwenge – Fort portal road misbehaved “they engaged minors in sex, violating the rights of most of these girls who were below 18,” he says.
 
Bbaale explains the community was not sensitised on risks of sex abuse that could arise from the road construction project, to prepare and enable them to protect their girls.
 
Furthermore, the contracted company (China Railway Seventh Group) did not have a policy barring its workers from sexually exploiting young girls and stipulating consequences that may arise.
 
Consequently, when construction works began, a number of girls, many of whom were below 18 years were sexually abused by road workers and left to languish as child mothers. This left residents of the two districts alarmed and there was an outcry for intervention.
 
The World Bank that was funding the construction of the road pulled out following the gross sexual violations of the girl child’s rights. But, the damage had already been done.
 
Probation officer Shaban Okumbuke says some of the perpetrators were arrested and arraigned in the courts of law and sentenced to jail while others are still on the run.
 
The bigger problem
 
According to Okumbuke the road workers were just the catalyst in the sex abuse scandal, they accelerated the porters and natives sexual abuse of young girls
 
“It’s true some road workers sexually abused the girls but the abuse was majorly by the village people and the abuse is still taking place,” he says.
 
He adds: “In July, we had 38 cases of sex abuse of young girls four of the culprits were road users the rest were locals. Only one Chinese man was named and our investigation found that he had actually married the woman who was over 18, paid dowry and they were living together.”
 
Teopista Byaruhanga a para-social worker and community development officer in Kamwenge district says defilement, child neglect and child labour is rampant in the district.
 
Children less than 18 are left on their own to fend for themselves. Alone these children are become candidates for sex abuse and end up sexually assaulted.
 
Okumbuke says the problem lies in attitude. The education level among adults is not extensive.
 

 
 “They are illiterate and have studied up to Primary two or three, however, some have money and opt to see their girls get married early so that they can get dowry and more money,” he says.
 
This is predominantly among the Bakiga, Bafumbira, Batagwenda, Batoro and Bakonjo. For them culturally, a girl equates to cows and wealth.
 
Assistant Superintendent of Police in Kamwenge Francis Okongo agrees the problem is that girls are seen as a source of income.
 
“They are given away for dowry even if they were sexually assaulted,” he says.
 
Okongo adds: “Illiteracy combined with drunkenness is a big problem. Parents are too drunk to take responsibility for their children, know where they are, who they are with or where they slept. Children because of their parent’s negligence are at liberty to do as they wish.” 
 
Okumbuke says you find young girls in the evening bringing their phones to charge in the trading centre and roaming around only to end up being lured by men and sexually abused.
 
But he says most girls also run from their families because there is nothing to eat.” If they want to eat they come to the centre and exchange food for sex,” he says.
 
Reporting cases
 
Okumbuke says are cases are being reported through Sauti the national toll-free child support telephone.
 
In July through the toll-free line 10 cases were reported, two of child neglect and eight sexual violence against children. Others were walk-ins in the police. One was simple defilement and four aggravated defilement.
 
One of the cases involved a 48-year-old man is Katojo. It was a walk in. He had abused several children in his village.
 
The children were picked for medical examination and it was found all of them had been abused.
 
The perpetrator was arrested and examined. Luckily he was HIV negative. He was convicted and handed seven years imprisonment.
 
Lack of protection
 
Bbaale says the challenge lies in people negotiating cases of sexual abuse away from the authority and court.
 
The police and local leaders also negotiate cases. They may decide to have families settle the matter and not allow the law to take its course.
 
Then health workers fear court summons plus appearances, “they are intimidated in court,” Bbaale says, so they will not want to examine the victims because they will be asked to testify, and the abused young girls also fear court.
 
He adds that most caretakers are also not interested in following up cases for fear of costs and for the sake of avoiding wrangles in the community.
 
But the problem is that, if the girl has been abused and exposed to HIV, they have 72 hours to be put on pep (post-exposure prophylaxis) to prevent infection or their life and health will have been compromised.
 
Coming to the girls' rescue
 
Okumbuke says the district probation and welfare office in Kamwenge and Kabarole districts, embarked on supporting the sexually abused girls and those at risk, as government undertook completion of the road project
 
Okumbuke who is in charge of the District Action Center (the emergency child protection response centre) says they are creating awareness in the community.
 
Through a World Bank project; Supporting Children's Opportunities through Protection and Empowerment (SCOPE), district officers are working together with International Justice Mission, World Vision, Joy for Children, BRAC (a micro-finance institution) and the Local Government to salvage the situation.
 
Support rendered includes psycho-social support, emergency healthcare, examination of cases, legal support and skilling. This is in addition to creating awareness in the community to save young girls at risk of sex abuse.
 
How safe spaces are helping girls
 
Alex Sabiiti a Clinical officer, who runs one of the safe spaces in Kamwenge, says they do not get cases of sexually abused young girls daily but, most are referred from police.
 
They come with police forms, pick files and then come to the safe space. “The other cases are referred to us when the girls come to the health centre (outpatient) for maternity checks.
 
When health worker discover they are below 18 years they are asked to come to the safe space.
 
It enables us to access the survivor for HIV tests plus other common STDs, and give basic care that includes pep to prevent HIV infection,” Sabiiti says.
 
“To also help the young girls, we use interviewers in almost the same age bracket as them and not old people so that they can open up.
 
The room is lockable, away from most people in the general section of the health centre, and we have many activities for the young girls including skilling and educative films, that keeps them gainfully engaged,” he adds.
 
Helping the girls to cope
 
Paul Mayemba who works with World Vision as Project Manager SCOPE, Kamwenge Cluster says the survivors are prepared through psychosocial support so that they get out of state anger and hopelessness and have hope in their future.
 
The phases include awareness and seeing victims of sexual abuse get justice. He says they have among other had training's, equipped doctors in psychosocial support and helped victims present themselves in court, some fear going to court.
 
When it comes to Joy for children, they have done community mobilization. Mayemba explains they dig out cases that could have died in the community; ensure cases management and skills development.
 
Several girls clubs have been set up in the district for sexual survivors and others at risk of being abused.
 
But Okumbuke says this problem could have been avoided if the Roads Company had people to sensitize locals on gender and sex issues.
 
“If sensitized, people in the community parents could have been alert to keep young girls and even boys safe from sex abuse. While the workers would know not to abuse young girls because there are consequences,” he says
 
Margarita Puerto Gomez is a Social Development Specialist working with the World Bank in Uganda says a comprehensive approach to respond to the sex violations against young girls as seen in Kamwenge Fort portal was new for the bank.
 
However, every project they will fund now must have a component of mitigating social risks, with a Code of conduct for workers and sensitization for the community to avoid the scenario as was seen in Kamwenge -Fort portal.
 
Okumbuke says infrastructure projects across the entire nation needs this intervention, and skilled people to sensitize the masses that girls are precious so that they don’t go for cheap money.
 
Getting Justice
 
Bethany Kriss of the International Justice Mission says court workers, the police; district probation officers have all been trained to handle child sex abuse cases.
 
Each one plays their role from ensuring that cases are reported, holding perpetrators accountable, and ensuring impartiality in handling cases.
 
There are lawyers to represent these children in court and ensure cases are expeditiously handled and the children can hand the court environment.
 
The probation officers work with the police to ensure regular case management, they follow up cases. The Police are also working with courts to fast-track cases.
 
Okongo says cases are now being handled expeditiously in court and justice is being served.
 
The SCOPE focal person for Kabarole district Christopher Mandy says the solution to ending sexual abuse of young girls rests within the community, not just the family.
 
“We are not sitting back; we are sensitizing our people to embrace girl child education and educating parents and religious leaders to pass on this message.
 
Girl education culturally is not valued. It is seen as wasting money, parents who are not economically empowered see girls as sources of wealth through dowry paid at marriage, change of attitude will be a gradual process,” he says.
 
The Secretary for gender in Rutete Kiko East Division Kabarole district Florence Kadoma giving an example of her area says they have asked all head teachers not to send any child who cannot afford fees out of school. This is to protect these children from abuse like it happened.
 
For the victims and those already out of school, there are several girl groups where they are skilled.
 
Annet Komuhendo has 18 adolescents in her care. She keeps them active by engaging them in physical and leisure activities plus teaching them about family planning.
 
This is in addition to teaching them hairdressing, weaving and tailoring to promote their talents, make it a source of income and protect them from being sexually violated again.
 
The continued struggle
 
Ninsiima 17, the mother of two just like the other girls, says information shared and the counselling has made her strong to face her problems but though she struggles to survive.
 
There is no money to go back to school and she has to continuously work in people’s gardens to get some money to take care of herself and her children plus family.
 
“It is difficult but the only good thing is that I no longer feel depressed as was the case earlier; my only challenge is that we have no proper source of survival with my children,” she says.
 
“We have been counselled and skilled and promised income generating projects but that has not materialized. I cannot even think of going back to school because there is no money,” she adds.
 
Ninsiima started a salon but could get only one client in a day yet she had to pay rent for the salon space. She closed it down and now engages in casual digging to get money to survive on.
 
Ninsiima says even with the skilling she has received, without support in form of capital or income generating activities her future and that of her children is bleak.
 
“I will dig to survive and leave the rest to God. But am thankful for the counselling it has left me with hope. I am always hopeful things will work out,” she says.

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