By Siki Kigongo
As I drove from Hoima to Kagadi, along a road currently undergoing construction, I felt a sense of excitement and pride, seeing the opportunities that the construction of Uganda’s first Oil Refinery was starting to bring not only to this region, but to the country as a whole.
Suddenly, the car screeched to a quick halt as two school children ran playfully across the road. I was quickly reminded of the reason for my trip, an unfortunate incident that had befallen a child, unlike the ones that were already gleefully on their way; this near fatal incident was long forgotten.
She was only 10 years old, her entire life before her, strolling along the road on her way home. Little did she know that everything would change that day. Lured by trappings of childhood desires, her life took a turn for the worse as someone she thought of as a ‘leader and protector’ in her village defiled her.
Distraught and terrified, she needed to find answers, to be made whole again, to right the wrong. But how? Her parents? The police? Perhaps the hospital? She decided to take solace in her mother. “Don’t talk about it, you will be okay. Tell no one.” That’s all the solace her mother would give her, the fear of stigmatization overbearing her sense of protection to her child. The words, “we cannot be ashamed” ringing in her ears as she cried herself to sleep. This story is all too familiar, especially in rural Uganda.
Over 50% of Uganda’s children are living in vulnerable situation: they are orphans, or children residing in a household headed by another child; they are homeless; they are child labourers; or they are young girls who are mothers when they should still be children. Violence against children within homes and communities is unaccepted, and its prevalence is widespread. The knock-on effect is the violation of children’s rights.
It is no secret that Uganda’s infrastructure projects are extending beyond the capital city, with the planned construction of Uganda’s first Oil Refinery in the Albertine Region to the construction of Kamwenge and Kabarole Water Project. Uganda’s National Road Authority (UNRA) is currently overseeing close to 50 development projects across the country, and with these large projects underway, there are multiple opportunities for economic growth, new transport corridors, new energy sources, new job opportunities- all of which can bring positive benefits for a community and a country. And Uganda definitely needs this.
These projects quickly develops a honeypot effect leading to large labour influxes. People are attracted like bees to honey, in their droves. So the arrival of skilled and unskilled workers, migrant workers, and multiple subsidiary services both legitimate and illegitimate begins.
However, it is a double edged sword. There exists the ‘invisible’ effects, the dark side of these projects, the deterioration of child safety and the sudden vulnerability of not only the children, but women in these areas.
At the end of 2015, the World Bank pulled the plug on $265 transport scheme following allegations of sexual misconduct especially as construction workers were targeting schoolgirls. This decision was later overturned as new safeguards were put in place, and the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development swore to increase their participation in Violence against Children and Gender-Based Violence prevention programs and utilization of multi—sectoral services for survivors of violence in targeted districts.
Without measures being taken to safeguard these children from both violence and exploitation, the cycle of vulnerability shall continuously rob them of their rights to experience their childhood in dignity; to learn, to play, to grow, to feel safe, and to be healthy.
This is a story we are hoping to rewrite through BRAC’s intervention to mitigate social risk through our Empowerment and Livelihoods for Adolescent (ELA) girls club. Our prevention efforts and response to violence against children include raising awareness of violence and reducing the social acceptance of such practices. We are also raising community dialogue on sensitive issues and calling on community members to be accountable in child protection efforts. We also provide emergency support services to survivors that include psycho-social counselling and support, as well as adequate health care.
Through solid partnership with agencies including World Vision, IJM, COHEPCO, Raising Voices, World Bank amongst many others, spearheaded by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, we are increasing our shared reach to prevent and respond to GBV and VAC.
As we commemorated the Day of the African Child, we must reflect on this year’s theme, “Leave No Child Behind for Africa’s Development”. With the upcoming International Youth Day, we must acknowledge the fact that the future of this country lies within this growing population, and we cannot leave them destroyed. It is crucial that we take responsibility and do more to protect the future of Uganda’s children. After all, it is said that it takes a village to raise a child, and we must all do our part to end violence against children.
The writer is the Communications Manager at BRAC