Sunday, July 12, 2009

Uganda: Schools no safe haven for girls

By Wambi Michael - IPS
Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

A year ago, a mother in Kashari County took the law into her own hands and castrated a man she caught raping her seven-year-old daughter.

Malita Kyomugisha returned from her farm and found her neighbor Tito Mugarura sexually assaulting her youngest daughter behind her house in Rugyerera village.

"I think he deserved it then and I would do it to him today if I found him," Kyomugisha said.

"When I reached the bush behind my house, I could not believe my eyes when I saw that old man on top of my youngest child. I was lucky that he was still naked. I used the knife I had in my garden basket to cut of his organ," she said.

The story was widely reported in the media, and many children's and women's rights activists, including Uganda's former ethics and integrity minister, Miria Matembe, applauded Kyomugisha's action. Matembe had gained notoriety for agitating that men who rape minors be castrated as a deterrent.

Child abuse is rampant in Uganda. In the war-affected north, soldiers and rebels alike have been responsible for numerous rapes. But even where conflict cannot be blamed for destroying the social fabric, girls are vulnerable to assault by their relatives at home and by teachers at school.

While defilement - as rape of a minor is known under Ugandan law - carries a maximum sentence of death, this punishment has never been meted out to anyone convicted of the offence, although many are serving jail sentences.

Beatrice Anywar, a Member of Parliament representing Kitgum District in Northern Uganda told IPS, "The male teachers are supposed to be the custodians of girls but they are the very people defiling and impregnating these young girls.

"So the girls are not safe at home, on the way or at schools. At home, the young men and uncles will defile them, on the way the so-called sugar daddies will defile them, you take them to school the teachers defile and impregnate them."

In early April a primary school teacher, John Bosco Sempijja, was convicted and sentenced to a seven-year jail term after he pleaded guilty to having sex with two of his pupils, aged 12 and 13. Another 34-year-old man was last month sentenced to ten years for defiling a five-year-old and infecting her with venereal diseases.

The African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect is among organisations critical of these convictions, saying the sentences are not sufficient deterrent.

A survey funded by World Bank in 2008 indicated that about one in every twenty-five girls aged between 12 and 17 had been sexually assaulted by their teachers; put differently, 43,000 girls in primary schools were found to have been raped.

Ten percent of the girls surveyed, in 380 schools in 17 districts in Uganda, admitted to being involved in sexual relationships. Roughly 40 percent of these sexual liaisons were with teachers.

Teachers lure girls into sex by promising them gifts and good marks in class. Even without the enticements, girls fear the likely consequences if they refuse to yield to sexual advances by teachers.

Pregnancy has a major impact on the numbers of girls who drop out of school. As abortion is illegal in Uganda, many girls are forced to carry pregnancies arising from rape to term; there are no provisions to accommodate young mothers in school , and many drop out with important consequences on their future.

Education of women and girls is closely related to greater decision-making power over finances and reproductive health issues like condom use or seeking treatment for sexually-transmitted diseases.

Uganda's education minister, Geraldine Namirembe Bitamazire told IPS, "We don’t tolerate teachers who defile pupils. Where they are discovered we have referred the matter to police and some have been convicted. Many have been dismissed from service because a teacher by our code of conduct is not supposed to have sexual relationship with the pupils."

But some of the teachers dismissed from government schools simply change districts or seek employment in private schools because their is no system to trace abusers.

Alice Alaso, Member of Parliament from the Soroti municipality in eastern Uganda said this problem should have been eliminated because the country has good laws in place.

"The problem is implementation at the grassroots. You find local councils who should not be attending to cases of defilement calling (local council) courts and sitting to adjudicate on these matters," Alaso said.

"There is also a problem with our police. Our police have become corrupted. Some of them because they cover up these matters. So when a defiler is arrested, you find bribery and settling out of court; you find bribery and no arrests are being made," she said.

Alaso decried the attitude of parents for contributing to maintaining high levels of sexual abuse.

"Normally you see them asking for a few cows, money to forgive defilers. That was not the spirit of the law. The spirit of the law was very punitive and indeed if you get these culprits and bring them before the law the punitive arrangements would be (an effective) deterrent.

"No defiler would want to appear before court (threatened with) serving 15 years for aggravated defilement or life imprisonment. But because the implementation has been shoddy and the implementers have been irresponsible, defilement continues to be on the rampage," she lamented.

Parents, she said, routinely follow reporting a case to police by negotiating with the accused to settle the case outside of court, in exchange for money or other commodities. She alleges that some corrupt police investigators take advantage of such negotiations to share the proceeds with the parents.

Uganda's deputy Attorney General, Freddy Ruhindi, said the country's courts are being strengthened to expedite the trial of defilement cases.

"It is not true that we are doing nothing to curb the practices. The directorate and the judiciary have decentralised the handling of defilement and rape cases to magistrates courts. So we expect more speedy trials. In some cases the suspects have not been convicted because of lack of evidence," he said.

In January 2009, the charge of grievous bodily harm against Malita Kyomugisha was dropped when the complainant did not appear in court.
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