Why Uganda's child molesters don't go to jail

Incidents of sexual abuse, particularly of children, appear to be on the rise in Uganda. However, this apparent increase has not been matched by a similar rise in prosecutions. Instead, many families are still choosing to settle the cases out of court—despite the effect this could have on abuse victims.

According to police statistics, 804 cases of sexual abuse of minors were reported in 2001, 988 in 2002 and 3 052 in 2003.
In addition, 52 rape cases were reported in 2001, 93 in 2002 and 181 in 2003.

However, the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN)—a Nairobi-based NGO—has highlighted the fact that reported cases may only be the tip of the iceberg.

In a report entitled Innocence at Stake: A Situation Analysis of Child Abuse in Uganda that was published last year, ANPPCAN says the findings of police, hospitals, media, the Uganda Human Rights Commission and other NGOs indicate that 4 495 minors were sexually abused in 2002.

“Girls were the major victims of abuse, accounting for 85,8% of the cases reported,” the document says, adding that most abused children were between nine and 17 years. Ninety percent of the alleged perpetrators were close relatives.

Still, strong cultural practices, shame and ignorance of the law are preventing abuses from being brought to court. Lengthy hearings and cross-examinations that put the victim on trial also play a part in this—as well a reluctance to put perpetrators in a position where they may have to face the death penalty.

It is a capital offence sexually to abuse a minor in Uganda. The minimum sentence is seven years’ imprisonment.

As a result, many families resort to out-of-court settlements that may involve the abuser making a payment of cows, goats, hens, sheep, clothes or money.

“Much as it would hurt me so much to see my daughter sexually abused, taking the issue to the courts of law and exposing her would just cause more pain for both of us,” says Jessica Nanfuka, a mother of two daughters.

“And it’s nothing to do with the financial benefits here. It’s just a better way in a society like ours ... We avoid shame, and protect our daughters,” she says.

According to the ANPPCAN report, 92 defilement cases were handled by the High Court in 2002. However, only 38 of the alleged perpetrators were convicted. Nine were acquitted, while two had the cases against them dismissed.

A sizable number of the remaining cases ran into difficulties because witnesses failed to appear in court.

“People are not vigilant in going to court to testify because of the lengthy procedures. They often give up and the magistrates cannot go on,” says Sarah Mwebaze, a programme officer at the Ugandan chapter of ANPPCAN.

Some are not even aware of the procedure to follow when a child is abused.

“They come to us when they have not even gone to the police and no police surgeon has carried out a medical examination,” Mwebaze adds. As a result, evidence of the crime is lacking.

“The community is still ignorant about what should be evidence and what should not. They also do not prioritise the legal way,” she says. “They feel that paying money to a police surgeon—for those who know he exists—it’s a waste of time and money.”

Some Ugandans also shy away from the prospect of being instrumental in the death penalty being imposed on an abuser. This is especially true of instances where the accused is a relative, or in villages where people have closer relationships than is the case in urban areas.

“I would not like to send my sister’s son to jail, one who could actually be facing death because he had an affair with a teenage girl. That is one of the reasons why reporting cases of defilement is a bit low, and why people prefer to solve the issue out of court,” Mwebaze says.

Even the structure of Uganda’s court system plays a part in preventing trails from going to term.

A 1998 statute gave local council (LC) courts a certain amount of authority in cases that involve the sexual abuse of minors—even though the 1995 Constitution sees this crime as a capital offence, punishable only by the High Court.

This created a “grey area” where LC courts make rulings in abuse cases—and appear to favour out-of-court settlements.

“It’s our job to settle these problems. Many times, parents prefer to do it that way, and we are here to serve the people,” says George Sserungoji, a local councillor in Uganda’s capital, Kampala.

Rights activists disagree.

“Sexual abuse of minors is a capital offence. They are not cases to be solved by the LC courts. The LCs are only supposed to assist the police to get the offenders and not to judge cases,” says Rosemary Nyakikongoro, an advocacy officer at Action for Development (Acfode), a women’s NGO in Kampala.

Her words are echoed by Mwebaze: “In our advocacy programme, we are trying to emphasize to the LCs that their powers are limited to a point. There are some things they can do and [some] they cannot do. Of course it’s a long route, but we have to start somewhere.”

Certain court officials have argued that the management of abuse cases would be made easier if the age of consent in Uganda were lowered from 18 to 16.

But, “As child rights advocates, we are against lowering the age of consent. We are also advocating for reducing the sentence to life, rather than death,” Mwebaze says. This reduction in sentencing is contained in a proposed Sexual Offences Act.

Mwebaze adds that there is also a need for other penalty revisions. The punishments meted out to adults, she argues, should not necessarily be the same as those issued to teenagers: “A man of 45 years who defiles a girl of 16 years should receive a different penalty from a teenager who commits the same crime.”

Acfode has the same view. “The kind of punishment that is given to a person who has defiled a three-month-old baby should not be the same kind of punishment given to someone who has sexually abused a 17-year-old,” says Nyakikongoro.

Acfode is now trying to make parents aware of how to care for children who have been sexually abused—and to view them as something other than “spoilt”.

“In one of our major sensitisation programmes, we are going to be targeting parents, the LC structures and the schools, because schools are big grounds for sexual harassment, including child-to-child sexual abuse,” Nyakikongoro says.—IPS

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