The shocking rise of sexual abuse of young girls in northern Uganda was revealed when it was reported that in the wake of the pandemic there was a more than four-fold increase in those aged 10-14 becoming pregnant. BBC Africa Eye has been looking at why perpetrators are getting away with the crime.
The heavily pregnant girl – no more than 12 years old – looks down at her hands as the local council chairman asks about her latest visit to the doctor.
It is the sort of question a family member should be asking, but this is no normal pregnancy.
The girl lives on her own in a small home, in Kitgum district, and is expected to give birth any day.
Her parents’ cassava business failed, so they returned to their village to find money for the family.
“She was left here because here is a little bit nearer to the schools,” chairman Obita David Livingstone says.
“But the unfortunate part, the next room here is where people drink. That alone has exposed her to a lot of challenges.”
No-one knows who the father is, or what happened.
‘Three cases a week’
BBC Africa Eye is only allowed to film this girl, who we are not naming, because Mr Livingstone said he wanted to raise awareness of the sexual violence happening in the community.
“In a week, we always have like three cases of defilement. Sometimes when we get the perpetrator, we have to tie them with ropes and take them, escort them to the police. But they don’t bother to follow it up.”
He is fed up with such levels of impunity.
“There is nobody who can really support the person who has been raped. To me I look at this justice as a weak justice,” the local chairman says.
Defilement means unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 18.
According to Uganda’s Health Management Information System, pregnancies among girls between the ages of 10 and 14 increased by 366% during the country’s first Covid lockdown (March-June 2020).
At the regional general hospital in Gulu nearly a quarter of all pregnancies in the last financial year were girls under 18, the age of consent in Uganda.
Dr Baifa Arwinyo, the head of obstetrics and gynaecology, said: “If I am talking of teenage mothers, all of them are defiled. They are teenagers, they are not supposed to be pregnant.
“You will find that young mothers are the highest proportion of those dying of obstructed labour. The younger the mother, the more the complication.”
‘Sexual abuse was a war strategy’
The high levels of sexual violence are thought to be a legacy of the two-decade conflict in northern Uganda, which was infamous for its brutality.
The war was started by Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that wanted to overthrow the government.
His fighters were known for their inhumane treatment of those they abducted: maiming, cutting off lips and limbs, and forcing people into submission through fear.
It is estimated 40,000 children were abducted, forced to become soldiers or sex slaves, and 1.7 million people lived in internally displaced camps.
The rebels moved on from Uganda in 2008, but the after-effects of their atrocities are still present today, according to gender rights activist Pamela Angwech, director of Gulu Women Economic and Globalisation, a grassroots non-governmental organisation (NGO).
“Living within a toxic, minefield environment had long-term effects on the community. People are used to seeing dead bodies, people are used to seeing death. Sexual abuse was used as a military strategy by the LRA team.
“I describe it as the war was fought in the body of the woman and the woman became the battlefield.”
Few people ever saw justice for the heinous crimes committed during the war.
One LRA commander, Dominic Ongwen, was tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and found guilty of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in February 2021.
Kony is also wanted by the ICC but his whereabouts remain unknown.
According to lawyer Eunice Lakaraber Latim, who works for NGO Caritas, that legacy of a lack of accountability thrives in northern Uganda to this day.
“Growing up from Gulu, I saw so many children getting defiled, and most of those parents did not have the resources to pursue the justice that their children deserved.”
‘My child lives in pain’
Ms Latim took Africa Eye to the family of a three-year-old girl who was raped by a relative.
The mother only found out after she noticed the child’s style of walking changed. When the police came to arrest her relative, she says they asked her for money to “transport him”.
“I was then expected to feed the prisoner,” says Ms Latim.
“You have to literally pay your way to get justice. You have to pay money for fuel to have the suspect apprehended.
“You’re supposed to provide feeding for them while they’re still at the police station.”
The suspect was held for six months, but because some of the correct legal procedures were not followed, he was released on bail. The mother simply did not have the means to keep pursuing the case.
Police and medical reports confirm that the three-year-old had been infected with a sexually transmitted disease.
“My child is still in pain, even now. The infection has never healed,” her mother said.
“He should face a prison sentence. I didn’t want it to end this way.”
Ms Latim says it is not unusual for the justice system to fail victims, saying they have had a number of cases that have fallen apart.
“There is a lot of corruption. People don’t fear committing crimes here, because they say, if you have money, you will get out. That is what is happening.”
Nachula Damalie, the regional police commander of Aswa, acknowledges the problems with how some cases are handled, but she denied corruption is rife.
“We are not supposed to ask a victim to pay for our services. But sometimes I should accept that we can run out of fuel. Yes.
“Now with the corruption, it has been a general perception that police officers are corrupt, but not all are corrupt, just like any other institution would be. We have good ones and bad ones.”
The Minister of State for Northern Uganda, Grace Freedom Kwiyucwiny, also admits there are problems.
“I can’t deny corruption. Corruption is there. It’s at all levels, even at ministries’ level,” she says.
“We have laws on defilement, we have laws on incest, but somehow again, people just go behind the law and bribe police and then police say, ‘OK, go and settle it at home.’ There are cases which have been prosecuted, but the number is not high.”
None of the suspects in any of the cases BBC Africa Eye investigated were prosecuted.