Assessing the current situation of Uganda’s violence against children en route to formulation of effective national action plan
Esther Chandiru (not real names) pulls her dirty green apron to wipe off sweat her face after serving a cup of tea to a customer. She looks way older than her 18-year-old self and indeed she has to, considering the way the world has treated her since she was five.
Every morning, she leaves her guardian’s place at 6am after doing all house chores and treks over two kilometres to Arua town to work at this makeshift restaurant as a waitress where she earns a monthly salary of Shs 80,000.
At her age, she should be in school just like her peers but she is not and although she knows it is not good, it is the only choice she has because; first, a restaurant job is all she could find and secondly, it was a tough decision she made about two years ago, to run away from home.
“My mother died when I was about five years old and my siblings were three and four years old. It was a difficult time then for us and our father made it worse by bringing another wife almost immediately and life became hard,” she says.
Their new stepmother didn’t actually provide the care the children needed like their father had hoped. She instead unleashed violence on the innocent souls.
She made them till the garden for long hours on nearly empty stomachs given the one meal she gave them each day at that tender age. She also stopped them from going to school, arguing that since they would get married in future, there was no need for education. She beat them severely whenever she had a chance.
“Our father is a truck driver. On many occasions, he wasn’t home when these things were happening but even when we reported to him on his return, he rarely did anything apart from telling us to obey our mother,” Chandiru said.
As the eldest, she was treated the worst and most times couldn’t stand to see her siblings beaten for small things like waking up late. The trio could most nights huddle up in their bed and cry for their late mum.
Chandiru thought of running away with them but she too was young to provide for them. “Home was like hell,” she says through an interpreter, adding that most of the nights, all she kept thinking about was how the following day would end.
Each morning, she kept asking God why it was her and her sisters that have to go through this and why their mother had to be the one to die.
“I got tired of crying and decided that maybe since I am a girl, I should get married like my stepmother kept telling me. She told me I am a mature girl who was eating their food for nothing yet I am supposed to be married,” she said.
However, during the little time she spent in school until primary five, she was always warned about early marriage by her teachers and, above all, she wanted to be an accountant in future yet getting married wouldn’t be the solution.
She came up with a plan to run away from home and look for a job in town to help her raise money for paying her school fees and that of the siblings. Her late mother had a friend in Arua town who stayed alone and she is the one who accepted to take her in and found her the current job. Her family has never bothered to look for her.
“It is still hard being away from my people but l think maybe I made the right decision to come earn a living for the future of my sisters maybe. I want to work and take them away from home to school; I never keep quiet about how they are suffering and how while I might not be able to go to school, I want to give them the best that I can,” she said.
But even at work, it is not easy; she receives ridicule from her bosses, and the little money she earns must buy some things at home too.
With physical abuse, no education and a legion of other sufferings, Chandiru is just one of the many Ugandan children on whom violence is being meted out each day in silence.
FIRST-EVER NATIONAL SURVEY
According to the Uganda Violence Against Children (VAC) survey, 2018 by the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, released last week, three in four children in Uganda experience some form of violence.
This first-ever national survey was carried out in 2015 and had over 5,000 respondents. Of the three primary forms of violence surveyed, sexual, physical and emotional, one in three children experience at least two of these.
On sexual violence, the survey found that of Ugandans aged 13-17, one in four girls and one in 10 boys reported sexual violence in the past year with the most frequent perpetrators being neighbours and strangers for girls while boys reported it was friends and classmates.
Most of the respondents reported that these actions take place in the evenings at schools, in homes and on roadsides.
Janet Mukwaya, the minister of Gender, Labour and Social Development noted that VAC is hindering Uganda’s resolute commitment to fulfilling its international and regional obligations regarding the vice.
“The consequences of this violence on its survivors are devastation, increasing negative outcomes such as mental distress, sexually transmitted diseases and contemplations of suicide. Indeed violence against children infects the entire society,” Mukwaya said.
The prevalence of physical violence in Uganda sees four in 10 girls experiencing this form of violence while the number is bigger for the boys and was at six to 10 boys. The perpetrators of this form of violence were identified as adults in the community such as teachers and peers.
These forms of violence, according to the survey, have caused mental distress, self-harm, injury and low school attendance.
For example, Chandiru’s boss, who refused to be named, said that on several occasions, Chandiru cannot deliver 100 per cent of what she is capable of because of thoughts on problems and what she has gone through. “She is a good unhappy girl who deserves to be happy.”
According to the report, in spite of the laws that prevent violence against children, there is widespread societal acceptance of all forms of violence in Uganda and these social norms enable violence to prevail.
For John Musoke, a teacher in Kampala, even when government is trying to outlaw spanking children in schools, this will not be achieved based on our society’s beliefs.
“Caning a child in Africa is cultural and biblical; spare the rod and spoil the child. So, I don’t see a reason as to why beating a child for a mistake he/she has made should be an issue. African children learn that way,” Musoke said.
Issa Mugoya, a resident in Kireka, also noted that children are supposed to be subordinates to the adults who feed them and that in many cases their opinion on their life doesn’t matter but what the parents think is good for them.
“A child is not supposed to talk back to me while I am faulting him. It is bad and for us that is not the way we were brought up. We accepted whatever our parents and elders in society said and that is why we are respectable now unlike the children of these days who will report you to police for slapping them,” Mugoya said.
While the VAC survey results reveal that violence is a serious problem in Uganda, it also offers an opportunity for the government to use the findings to guide its programmatic and policy implementation aimed at preventing and responding to violence against children.
The report recommends implementation of a protective legal framework which is already in existence. “There already exists a strong legal framework prohibiting and punishing VAC in Uganda, thus the priority will be implementing and enforcing existing laws,” the report says.
Addressing harmful social norms and traditional practices that promote VAC particularly in health, education, and social welfare sectors are some of the recommendations. Others are income and economic strengthening, providing safe environments and parental support plus education and life skills.
However, different reports on the issue revealing similar findings have been published but government still remains to put the various recommendations in action.
For many children like Chandiru, their future could continue to be shattered by acts of violence imposed on them if nothing is done.