The social crisis of defilement, teenage pregnancy in Elgon

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The social crisis of defilement, teenage pregnancy in Elgon
Teenage pregnancy is leaving a bloat on Mbale | Gerald Matembu

Teachers and boda-boda riders top list of perpetrators of sexual assault against girls while systemic corruption cited as a obstacle in fight against defilement

Despite having a robust legal framework and dedicated institutions in place, Uganda struggles to transform policies into real benefits for its most at-risk population: its girls.

The pervasive issues of teenage pregnancy and sexual assault continue to loom large, casting a distressing shadow over the lives of these vulnerable young individuals, depriving them of their innocence and overall well-being.

Uganda faces one of the world's highest adolescent fertility rates due to limited sexual education reproductive health education, early marriage, and poverty.

It is crucial to recognise that teenage pregnancy is not just a girls' issue but a societal issue that requires a collective response.

In Sironko district, 24 percent of mothers attending the first antenatal care clinic are under 18, with 3943 underage mothers recorded in 2023 alone.

In practical terms, this translates to approximately eleven girls becoming pregnant every single day. These numbers are not just statistics; they represent the dreams deferred, the potential unrealised, and the vulnerabilities of our youth.

The trauma inflicted upon victims of defilement leaves enduring scars, manifesting in profound physical, emotional, and psychological distress for years to come.

In some cases, the victims sustain tears, severe bleeding, ruptured uterus, obstructed labour, disability as well as contracting HIV.

Tragically, perpetrators of these heinous acts often evade justice, shielded by a pervasive culture of silence and impunity.

Dr Banabas Rubanz, tasked with examining defilement victims in Mbale, shed light on the disturbing prevalence of this scourge.

He reveals a troubling pattern: encountering defilement victims who are offspring of prior victims. He disclosed that he examines at least 10 defilement victims daily, predominantly from Mbale District and its city.

Elgon Region Police spokesperson Rogers Taitika revealed that 100 cases of defilement are reported to the police monthly.

The disparity in reported cases becomes even more pronounced with the statistics provided by the Mbale Chief Magistrate's office.

Annually, the office receives about 60 defilement cases, out of which a handful are committed to the high court for trial.

Compounding these challenges is the unsettling trend of perpetrators among those entrusted with the care of children including teachers, law enforcers, and pastors.

Dr Rubanza recalled a disturbing, instance where school heads actively participated in negotiations to shield accused teachers from facing justice in Mbale city.

“In one of the secondary schools a teacher confined an 11-year-old student at his residence for a month, defiled her severally, impregnated her and subjected her to abortion,” he said.

“We get traumatised but at times we fight and fail on the way.”

Rubanza lamented adding that at least one defilement case involving a teacher is registered weekly.

Ugandans have been largely unconscious or indifferent to these staggering numbers, failing to take concerted action.

However, the reality remains that this issue cannot be tackled by any single entity alone. It requires a united front of everyone including parents, relatives, neighbours, authorities, educators, civil society, media, security, healthcare providers, the church, cultural leaders, and the general public to safeguard the well-being of the girl child.

Ephraim Denis Mulwaniregha, the RDC of Sironko, attributes the rampant teenage pregnancy to parental neglect citing boda-boda operators as key perpetrators.

In contrast, Joyce Matuka, a GBV activist, points to moral decay and a lack of social commitment to combat the issue.

Matuka also highlights limited awareness about the legal regime among the public as a contributing factor. These differing perspectives underscore the complex nature of the problem, necessitating a multifaceted approach to address the root causes effectively.

The government has formulated a national strategy to end child marriage and teenage pregnancy 2022-27, aligning with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, envisioning a society free from these harmful practices.

Despite a comprehensive legal framework and coordination efforts led by institutions like the Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development, tangible results remain elusive.

Corruption and negotiations a big obstacle to justice

Reports indicate that many cases reported to authorities never make it to court, with parents opting to use medical reports as bargaining tools rather than pursuing legal action against perpetrators.

Rubanza, a key witness in defilement cases, has lamented the lack of invitations to testify in court, attributing this to parents' preference for negotiating with suspects.

He describes a disheartening pattern where negotiations start at the community level and continue through various stages involving local leaders, law enforcement, and even court proceedings.

Furthermore, alarming cases of obstruction of justice by state actors have been exposed, with police and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) implicated in accepting bribes from perpetrators to influence the outcome of cases.

This culture of corruption has led to a betrayal of trust among victims and their families, as illustrated by Fiona Khainza's experience of her case file mysteriously disappearing at the state attorney's office.

This has motivated some parents to opt for negotiation in fear of the futile pursuit of justice.

Capacity gaps in the JLOS

Limited funding and understaffing across justice agencies, notably the Directorate of Public Prosecutions and Police, exacerbate these challenges.

In his report to the Deputy Chief Justice, the regional DPP Eastern, Alex Michael Ojok, revealed the institution’s inability to prepare witnesses due to a lack of necessary funding coupled with minimal funding of 22 staff against 700 cases across Eastern Reign.

This is compounded by the case backlog in the judicial system.

The cost of prosecution is often transferred to the victim. A clear example is a case of a defilement in Mbale City involving a police officer attached to CPS Mbale in which the victim’s family parted with Shs60,000 to have their file processed.

“They asked us to pay sixty thousand for the Scene of Crime Officer to print photos,” a member of the family said.

Likewise, despite the Ministry of Health's directive for free SGBV victim examinations, misunderstandings about the justice process lead some parents in rural areas to pay for private clinical examinations, deterring those who cannot afford them.

Additionally, parents are often asked to fund police investigations.

Fiona Khainza's ordeal serves as a stark reminder of the daunting challenges faced by victims of defilement in Uganda's pursuit of justice.

As the mother of a 14-year-old girl who fell victim to defilement, her journey for accountability and closure was marred by frustration and betrayal at every turn after the crucial case file, CRB 185/2024, mysteriously went missing at the Mbale state attorney's office.

This bureaucratic mishap threw her into a bewildering maze of bureaucratic red tape, as she was tossed back and forth for weeks.

Fiona's story underscores the urgent need for reforms to streamline legal processes and ensure accountability.

Her ordeal serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of prioritizing victims' rights and providing them with the support they need to heal.

Without meaningful change, the cycle of impunity will persist, leaving Uganda's girls vulnerable to further harm.

However, Rubanza pointed out a significant milestone in the fight against sexual violence against girls. He highlighted a case where a judge delivered a decisive ruling, convicting a suspect based on compelling medical evidence, despite attempts by the victim's family to conceal her.

Rubanza said: "We did a vaginal swab and we found semen was matching with the DNA of the suspect.”

He when the case came up for hearing, the parents hid the girl.

This case serves as a beacon of hope in the battle against sexual violence, demonstrating the crucial role of evidence-based prosecution in securing justice for victims.

Despite attempts to obstruct the legal process, the judge's unwavering commitment to upholding the law and protecting the rights of the victim resulted in a just outcome.

Rubanza advocated for awareness and training programmes for investigation officers on the necessary skills and understanding to handle defilement cases sensitively and effectively.

By providing education on the psychological, emotional, and physical repercussions of defilement, investigators can better comprehend the gravity of these crimes and approach their work with greater empathy and professionalism.

His call is reechoed by GBV activist Benah Namono, who sights breakage of the GBV justice pathway at the initial stages of investigation.

Public and stakeholder sensitisation is imperative to create awareness about the legal regime and the roles of various stakeholders in the fight against the scourge.

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