New Vision (Kampala)

10 April 2013

Uganda: Harmful Practices Against Children - a Call for Collective Responsibility

A former British Prime Minister described Uganda as the Pearl of Africa. However, in this beautiful land, there are a number of harmful cultural practices that makes it a place no child would want to live. As the third series of the Tumaini Awards is launched, STEPHEN SSENKAABA explores the extent to which these outmoded practices have affected the lives of children in our society.

SHE knew life was going to be hard, but how was she supposed to refuse. Once she clocked 13, as culture dictated, she had become of age.

It was time to face the knife in an important rite of passage for young girls into womanhood. Amitr Nenu (not real names) comes from the Tepeth Community in North Eastern Uganda where Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) among the Pokot and Tepeth of Karamoja sub region is an important cultural practice.

It is not a matter of choice; it was a cultural rite, which had to be performed. And so Nenu joined other 13-year-old girls to prepare for their day to be circumsised.

They had to be secluded from the other children and taken through the drills by an elderly woman as their day to be circumsised drew nearer.

Circumcision changed Nenu's life forever. She had to find a husband to marry her and start a family. Her opportunities to pursue an education were thus thwarted; her future was confined to the misery of producing children and battling harmful infections to her reproductive system from the bruises caused as a result of the crude cutting methods.

FGM is rife in our society. The World Health Organisation estimates that 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide presently live with the consequences of FGM.

In Africa, it is estimated that 92 million girls aged 10 years and above have undergone the practice. In Uganda the practice is common among the Pokot and Tepeth in Karamoja sub region and the Sabiny in Kapchorwa.

Yet it is just one of the numerous harmful cultural practices affecting young children in our society today. Over the recent couple of months, Uganda has been grappling with harmful practices like child sacrifice, child trafficking, child labour, early marriages, which have tremendously affected the progress of young children in our society.

Each of these practices continue to ravage our society in alarming ways. A recent United Nations Population Fund report indicates that Uganda is ranked the 14th country with early and forced marriage prevalence rates in the world with 46% of women being married before 18.

There is a strong cultural element to this, as many parents especially in rural areas consider it traditionally appropriate to give away their daughters for marriage.

Child sacrifice is just as bad. According to the Human Sacrifice and Trafficking Task force statistics for the year 2010, a total of 14 ritual murders, including nine children were registered in 2010.

A more recent report from Humane Africa, an international Organisation estimates that one child is sacrificed every week in Uganda for ritual purposes.

Many of these cases are exacerbated by prevailing backward practices cherished in many sections of our society. For instance many people engage in child sacrifice with the belief that children's body parts contain crucial curative medicinal values.

Male preference continues in many societies in Uganda with many parents giving preferential treatment to boys in education while giving away girls to marriage at an early age.

Efforts have been made to find solutions to these problems. The Government has enacted laws aimed at prompting respect for the rights of children. Apart from the Hague Convention on Inter-country adoption, Uganda has ratified almost all the other key international and regional child rights instruments.

The Children's Act Cap 59, The Penal Code Amendments, Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act, The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act and the International Criminal Court Act all point to the efforts put in place to eliminate harmful practices against children. But, challenges still remain.

What then is the problem?

Jacqueline Asiimwe, a member of the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA) attributes these issues to a number of factors prevalent in our society. Ignorance of the law is one of them. "Some people think that once the law is passed, then these practices will stop.

This is not the case," she says. Jacqueline adds that because many people especially in the countryside will not have read and internalised the law either because they do not have access to the law books or because they are illiterate.

She reasons, many continue to violate the law out of ignorance of the implications of their actions. Even though ignorance of the law is no defence against crime, in Uganda it exacerbates offences such as child sacrifice, FGM and other harmful cultural practices.

Inability of our judicial system to handle crime mainly because of poor facilitation also plays a key role in worsening harmful practices against children in Uganda.

"We have very good laws on the books, which are never implemented because the organs charged with administering justice are not well equipped," says Asiimwe.

She reasons that if the police lack facilities to follow up cases, if the judiciary is understaffed and underfunded as they indeed are in Uganda, it becomes difficult for perpetrators of harmful crimes against children to be competently prosecuted.

But Clare Nkirirehe, Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) gender and development officer says there is a cultural element to these issues.

"Culture is embedded in our being and passed on from generation to generation. Some of these practices cannot therefore simply be washed away."

She observed that with some serious effort and the requisite political will some of these cultures can be gradually changed for the better. Nathan Twinomugisha, chief legal advisor at the Amnesty Commission says that the issue of harmful social and cultural practices against children need to be viewed from a holistic point of view.

"You need to look at a combination of factors among which is poor implementation of the law as evidenced in the laxity in following up cases, and the usually very strong and cherished cultures such as FGM that often need more than just legislation to address.

Lasting solutions?

Jacqueline Asiimwe calls for more sensitization about the law and better facilitation for the judiciary. Twinomugisha argues that the judiciary also needs support from other arms of Government to be able to successfully implement laws that will make a difference.

Clare Nkirirehe says vigorous awareness campaigns to inform communities and perpetrators of harmful acts against children about the dangers of such acts will go a long way in finding solutions to these problems.

Harmful practices against children continue to ravage our society and if not adequately addressed will have serious consequences for the future of our society.

In tandem with this year's theme for the day of the African Child: "Eliminating Harmful Social and Cultural Practices affecting Children: Our Collective Responsibility."

African Union is drawing our attention to the need to work together to protect our children.

Do you know any individual, organisation, business or members of the press working to eliminate harmful social and cultural practices affecting children? Nominate them for the Tumaini Awards.

Facts about harmful cultural practices

According to the Human Sacrifice and Trafficking Task force statistics for the year 2010, a total of 14 ritual murders, including nine children were registered in 2010.

A recent United Nations Population Fund report indicates that Uganda is ranked the 14th country in early and forced marriage prevalence rates in the world with 46% of women being married before 18.

In Africa, it is estimated that 92 million girls aged 10 years and above have undergone female genital mutilation

The World Health Organisation estimates that 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide live with the consequences of FGM.

A more recent report from Humane Africa, an international Organisation estimates that one child is sacrificed every week in Uganda for ritual purposes.

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