Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

HEALTH-UGANDA: High Incidence of Rape Exposes Girls to HIV/AIDS Infection

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, Jun 25 2003 (IPS) - Faridah Ssentongo, 10, may remain traumatised for the rest of her life, right groups fear.

A year ago, she was raped by a man she did not know.

It all started when her mother Martina, a widow, confided in a family who promised an education for Ssentongo in a nearby school in Mpigi, a district south of the capital Kampala.

One day, Ssentongo complained to her friends about pain and burn in her private parts which, she said, happened whenever she went for a short call.

Her friends alerted the school authorities who quizzed Ssentongo. At first, she was afraid; the man had warned her that he would kill her if she exposed him. Ssentongo finally relented, after she was persuaded by her teachers. She said some man, she never knew, had repeatedly raped her on the way to school.

"I was afraid. I was suffering, but I could not tell. He said he would kill me if I told anyone," Ssentongo told Hope After Rape (HAR), a non-governmental organisation, based in Kampala, that helps abused children and women.

Her mother, Martina has taken Ssentongo for counselling; but, she says, she is not sure of her daughter’s HIV/AIDS status.

Defilement is the leading reported form of abuse against the girl child in Uganda, a recent report reveals.

The report, "INNOCENCE AT STAKE – A Situation Analysis of Child Abuse in Uganda 2002" released this month, says in 2002 alone, 5,868 cases of child abuse and neglect were reported in police stations across the East African country. Of these, 4,495 were defilement cases.

"Girls were the major victims of abuse, accounting for 85.8 percent of the cases reported," says the report, released by the African Network for Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN).

The first report, covering 1986-1996, complied by the Network, was released in 1998. Since then, the trend has shown a yearly rise in cases of defilement.

"Based on the previous reports, it is clear that there has – over the years – been a progressive increase in the level of reporting of child abuse cases," says the report.

Sadly, "most cases of child abuse still go unreported," the report says, adding that, "The problem is much bigger" in Uganda.

In Kampala alone, 553 children were abused, 255 of which were defilement cases.

The most abused children were those between 9 and 17 years who accounted for 86.9 percent. Under this age category, 4,197 girls were defiled, 21 murdered and 394 physically abused.

Although the majority of defilement cases reported were committed against older children between 9 and 17 years, 298 cases of younger ones between the ages of eight and below were also reported.

Most of the suspects are people close to the children, 90 percent being close relatives.

Liza Sekaggya, of the African Network for Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect, says defilement was the major form of child abuse handled by the Network last year. Their interventions included counselling, follow-up with the police, medical support as well as family resettlement, she says.

"Many of these people come back asking for HIV/AIDS tests and a number of the victims end up HIV positive. Last year, four girls got infected after they were raped," says Edith Nabiryo, a programme officer at the HAR.

The incidence, involving the four girls, aged between three and 13 years, shows that the defilers, or rapists, do not use condom, she says.

"Defilement and HIV/AIDS are interrelated. There is no way you can isolate them. A parent comes in complaining that her child has been defiled. The first thing that crosses her mind is that the child may have contracted HIV/AIDS. In 100 percent of the cases, the parents worry about HIV/AIDS," Nabiryo says.

"But some parents do not bother to check their children’s status. They feel better by not knowing their status," Nabiryo says.

In Uganda, the legal age for marriage is 18, while those accepted by the customary law is 16. And sometimes Muslims marry their daughters off at a very early age under Islamic shariah (law).

To the chagrin of human rights groups, many cases of child abuse, especially defilement, are resolved by the Resistance Council, an organ of the ruling National Resistance Movement, at village level. The Resistance Councils and Committees Statute 1998 empowers the village courts to preside over cases involving pregnant ‘girls below 18 years’.

In the village, most defilement cases are solved through mutual understanding between the parents, or guardians, of the victim and the defiler. In most cases, fines like goats, hens, cows and cash are paid. The defiler is also, sometimes, asked to marry the girl in cases where the child has conceived.

"People prefer to do that probably because it is cheaper and also because they do not want to expose the child. Besides, the judicial system can take long to preside over a case," Sekaggya says.

To avoid customary courts, rights groups are demanding that "the constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, must override any customary law".

"Negative customary practices that provide a platform for defilement should be researched, documented and condemned. Defilement cases should only be tried in the courts of law," Sekaggya says.

"Laws should be harmonised to ensure that girls stay in school up to the age of 18 years," she says.

Under the Uganda Penal Code Act: "Any person who unlawfully has sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 18 years is guilty of an offence liable to be punished by death."

"The sentence of defilement is death, but the Draft Bill suggests a reduced sentence of life imprisonment. That way, there will be more reporting of these cases," Sekaggya says.

Rights groups also demand a legislation to provide for a victim-friendly court with in-camera proceedings that do not expose the minor, considering the vulnerability of the child.

"More health practitioners also need to be trained and given the mandate to examine the child victims of defilement. There is, thus, a need to amend the Evidence Act," Sekaggya says.

The Network also believes that the provisions of the Sexual Offences Bill currently in parliament that provide for mandatory HIV testing on conviction of offenders is crucial.

The children also have a right to psychological rehabilitation, something that is currently lacking in Uganda.

While medical examination is one of the key requirements for prosecution of defilers as well as for the victim, sometimes this is not done because of the costs involved.

In 2002, the media played a major role in highlighting child abuse and neglect cases, the report says. The newspapers recorded 1,014 cases compared to the 324 cases documented in 1999.

"It is a positive factor in shaping public opinion on issues of child abuse and neglect and children’s rights," the report says.

Defilement was the highest form of child abuse (347 cases) accounting for 35 percent of all media cases covered last year.

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