Has Uganda’s justice system failed the Ugandan child?

 

By Marlon Agaba

Joan Asiimwe (not real names) was born a jovial baby, just as any normal child. The mother, a resident of Nyendo, Masaka district happily welcomed the new joy to the family. The happiness was however short-lived with events that followed.

On 10th September 2013 at just two weeks, Joan experienced a brutal and criminal act, perpetuated by a jilted step mother – that will forever haunt her. On the fateful day, the step mother, one Stella Namuwonge, cognizant that the infant’s mother was not around, conspicuously inserted broken razor breads in the toddler’s private parts.

Not to be undone, the evil-minded step mother went ahead to put blood clots in the infant’s mouth. Stella Namuwonge was acting in an apparent spate of revenge with her co-wife. The pain suffered by the child has been so excruciating and unimaginable, to the extent that, even at 1 years and 3 month, the child can neither crawl nor sit properly, the mother notes.  

The medical bills have been astronomically high, for single mother, whose main survival comes from selling chips in Nyendo town. Joan, even after undergoing several surgeries, is still unwell, with a likelihood of never giving birth.

The case was heard in Masaka Chief Magistrate’s court, where the suspect was arrested and arraigned before court. Despite the disappearance of the main witness in the case, proceedings continued, mainly based on other eye-witness accounts and medical reports. Deliberations went on for a year and finally on 21st October 2014, court had reached a verdict.

Guilty as charged, the magistrate ruled, much to the relief of the victim’s mother. The sense of justice was however undone upon reading the sentence. Mary Ikit, the Masaka Chief Magistrate sentenced Stella Namuwonge to one year imprisonment or a fine of 300,000 shillings.

The sentence was hard to bear for a mother, who had experienced her child’s suffering firsthand, incurred astronomical medical costs, and seen her business crumble – as she cared for her hapless child.

 

“I am not satisfied with the sentence, because I am still taking my child to hospital, the father doesn’t give me any help and my business is struggling. I am completely helpless,” Lydia Namaganda the victim’s mother noted after the verdict.

My child has difficulty while urinating and at her age, she cannot even crawl, Namaganda further added rather sobbingly.   

Joan is one in thousands of Uganda’s children, who continue to suffer heinous atrocities and the courts aren’t helping – activists argue.  

The 2013 Police Crime Report shows cases of child abuse have been rising annually. In 2013 for instance, a 38.9% increase in child abuse cases was registered. The report also shows a 15.8% increase in defilement cases to 9,598 cases and child neglect at 3,541.

This is very unfortunate, child rights activists argue, in a country that has invested enormous resources in enacting child protections laws.  “Uganda has some of the best child protection laws in the country, the problem has always been implementation of these laws,” Ms. Miriam Ahumuza, Information Officer with ANPPCAN Uganda Chapter, a child rights watchdog said yesterday.

In Joan case, the victim was even perhaps lucky that the case made it to court on time. Most cases of child abuse never make it to court. The Police Report for 2011 for instance shows that of the 7,690 cases reported in 2011; only 3,836 suspects were arrested and taken to court.

The implication is that over 50% of the perpetrators of child abuse remain roaming freely in the community – probably looking for the next target. Several challenges at the investigation level hinder progress of cases.

A 2013 report by ANPPCAN Uganda Chapter revealed the appalling state of the Police’s record management system. The old manual filing system used for keeping statements and pieces of evidence of poor, and cases of missing files had been reported before.

“The problem is that the level of record keeping at police is very poor, as often files go missing. Evidence gathering is also wanting and as a result many cases never make it to court,” Evelyn Mulumba, a child rights activist noted.

Such weaknesses in the justice system are driving the populace to much faster and efficient mechanisms of dispute resolution. In cases involving children, the option is often out of court settlement.

For Jackeline Akello (not real names) this was the fate. After being defiled at 15 years and made pregnant by a 54 year old neighbor, the former primary seven pupil couldn’t have expected what happened next. 

Under a tree, on a sunny afternoon, both the victim’s and perpetuator’s families convened an impromptu meeting that sealed Akello’s fate. For just 50,000 shillings, twenty liters of a local brew and one goat, Akello was ‘sold off’ into marriage.  

It’s not just Akello, many more children are defiled and they never get justice. “Inefficiencies in the courts of law coupled with poor investigation at police level are making people to lose trust in the justice system” Ms. Miriam Ahumuza, a member of a child rights watchdog noted recently.

It takes a minimum of one year for a case to be prosecuted in court. For some its 5 years while other cases will never see the light of day. For a parent deep down in the village, who probably has to travel on every court hearing, this is seen as an unnecessary burden. That’s why out of court settlements are most viable, Ms Ahumuza further added.

The courts often consider several factors during mitigation before sentencing. Considerations include the time spent on remand, whether the suspect is a first time offender or not, and whether the suspect has dependents, an insider in the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs noted yesterday, on condition of anonymity.

Uganda ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which makes 25 this year. The convention provides mechanisms for protecting children, which signatory countries must abide to. Article 34 of the Constitution of Uganda also protects children from abuse and degrading treatment.

“The missing link is often implementation. Cases involving children should always be handled expeditiously. This is because children have a short memory span, as well as the need for them to heal,” Mr. Dan Wangadia, a Kampala resident says.

Restitution for the victims has often been suggested. Some activists argue that on top of serving their sentences, perpetrators of child abuse should be made to pay for the damage causes. “The compensation ought to be commensurate to the crime committed and damage cause,” Ms. Ahumuza suggests.

The successful prosecution of cases like defilement often requires the victims to give evidence in court. This is often challenging for toddlers, especially when they have to face off with their tormenters, child protection campaigners argue.  

“Imagine a child, who has been defiled, giving evidence in a fully packed court with the perpetrator present. This is very challenging and most children often breakdown. In camera hearing is the way to go,” Mr. Paul Nsole a child psychologist says. Exposing children to court audiences and the perpetrator only causes more harm and trauma to the child, Mr. Nsole further adds.

For justice to be served, the question of case backlog has to be handled first. The judiciary recently launched the pre-bargain campaign, where suspects plead guilty, in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Child rights activists have welcomed the campaign, if only it can bring justice to children. “The plea bargain should also consider restitution in addition to the sentence given out to perpetrators of child abuse,” Ms. Ahumuza says.  

Others are rather utopian, suggesting a separate court, specifically set up to deal with child related cases. Proponents of this argument say that children are a vulnerable group, who need special protection.

As the judiciary grapples with structural challenges, for Joan and Akello and thousands of other children, justice remains an elusive dream. 

The author is an MA student at the Department of Journalism and Communication

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