As I walked into the middle of the circle to introduce myself, the women started cheering loudly; I had arrived at their event the only foreign woman in a group of men and this apparently deserved significant applause. After introducing myself, the women decided that I needed a new name and I was promptly dubbed Aya – a Lango word meaning ‘girl born amongst boys.' I like my new name.
I was attending a War Child community outreach event in Northern Uganda, an opportunity for all community members to come together to discuss important community issues. The topics ranged from child neglect and conjugal rights to alcoholism and taking care of the elderly. But amongst all the topics, one stood out: defilement. And it was largely because of one man's story.
The men and women had been sitting separately and, for the most part, the women had been the chattier of the two groups. But when the topic turned to defilement, one man spoke up. He had come to the meeting because 2 weeks earlier his daughter had been raped. She is 12 years old.
Following the rape, he went to the police to file a complaint and the rapist was arrested. He then brought his daughter on the long, and expensive, journey to Gulu (the nearest urban centre) for medical care. While he was in Gulu with his daughter, the rapist's parents paid the local police and the man was released. He raped a 12 year old girl and he's free.
Under Uganda law defilement is the rape of any one under the age of 17 and there are two types – simple and aggravated. Aggravated defilement is when the victim is infected with an STD, has permanent damage as a result of the rape or is below the age of 14. Those convicted face automatic life in prison but it's getting the conviction that is the problem.
That's where War Child comes in and that's why this man was here.
In Northern Uganda War Child provides free legal aid to victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Conviction rates are high, 83% for criminal cases last year and 100% for civil cases but getting cases to court is a challenge. Police corruption, a lack of proper resources (they can't investigate cases if they have no fuel in their vehicles to go anywhere) and lack of awareness of women's and children's rights all contribute to the problem. Combine that with local customs that ‘forgive' defilement if the parent's of the victim are paid a small sum and/or the rapist then marries the girl. The challenges could seem insurmountable.
But little by little change is happening.
The fact that the community meeting is as large as it is – over 75 people – is encouraging. Men and women, elders and youth coming together to openly discuss these issues is encouraging. An attending local police representative asking people to report police corruption is encouraging. A father looking for justice for his daughter is encouraging.
And so, the meeting ends. War Child staff continue discussions with the man on how to access our services and start on the path to getting legal justice for his daughter. Most everyone else is off home, for dinner. I stay and chat for a while and then head back to Gulu. In a car full of men. The women named me well.