HIV-afflicted sex maniacs who prey on under-age children may suffer death under a law recently drafted by the Ugandan government to curb pedophilia, which has risen to epidemic proportions in the country. The draft legislation is currently being debated in the country.
As per the new Penal Code Amendment Bill, such individuals are guilty of "aggravated defilement" and are "liable to suffer death" on conviction in the High Court. Since 1996, capital punishment had been the penalty for anyone found guilty of rape or defilement, although it has never been implemented.
Sexual deviants have turned Uganda into a horror state for innocent children. Last year, police in eastern Uganda recorded 2,554 cases of rape of which 2,504 victims were children below the age of 12. This August, the semi-official newspaper, 'New Vision', reported that 170 girls are raped every week.
According to prison authorities, half of the detainees in Ugandan prisons have sexually assaulted children. A 2005 study, 'Clinical Presentation and Management of Sexually Assaulted Females at Mulago Hospital', conducted by researchers at Makerere University found that 78 per cent of the victims were children below 12 years. This was in sharp contrast to the statistics of 2.8 per cent of the Keynote National Hospital study in next-door Kenya.
Men and women who prey on children do it for ill-founded beliefs. "Many HIV-afflicted people think that by having sex with children, they will get cured of AIDS," wrote Makerere University researchers.
Such is the intensity of economic deprivation and peer pressure that even the threat of a seven-year imprisonment has not deterred pimps and brothel-owners from indulging in the child trafficking trade.
The government is concerned that the rising cases of sexual assault will lead to a rise in the number of HIV/AIDS infections. According to the Uganda AIDS Commission (UAC), the infection rate has stabilized at 6 per cent.
Despite the concern, there have been cases where parents have been appalled by government apathy and have turned to the media for support. Take the case of Alice Nandawula who did not receive any help from the police and hospital authorities when her three-month-old daughter was sexually assaulted. The mother then turned to Drake Sekeba of the Wavah Broadcasting Service, a local television station.
Sekeba connected her to the NGO, Raising Voices, which paid for the medical expenses and pursued the case vigorously with the police. Prossy Nankajako, the coordinator of Raising Voices, said, "The police did not help this woman at all and a government hospital only gave her Panadol!" Though the mother insisted that the culprit be punished, community members, too, showed their indifference - thus highlighting cultural attitudes that don't consider rape a serious crime.
"In our community, we don't rape," a legislator from Karamoja region told the Parliamentary Committee on Social Services, alluding to the accepted community trait by which a man, who forcibly has sex with a woman, becomes her suitor.
The 2004 Human Rights Watch report on sexual violence in Uganda faults women for being stoic. "The fact (is) that women at different levels of the administrative structure are victims themselves and cognizant of what constitutes gender violence."
Miria Matembe, activist and former Minister of Integrity agrees, "The root causes of these social ills are our traditional and cultural practices, which undermine girls and women as sex objects."
Despite the HIV/AIDS campaign spearheaded by First Lady Janet Museveni (against cross-generational sex, and for promoting abstinence), these messages sound hollow to young girls who see sex bringing food to the table, in a country where 78 per cent of the 27 million Ugandans are youth.
"We are looking for survival, we need a living," said a 14-year-old girl to the police in Kasese in western Uganda, following a recent swoop that netted 10 underage girls working as barmaids and moonlighting as commercial sex workers.
Reacting to the Penal Code Amendment Bill, some human rights groups felt that the death penalty for HIV-afflicted defilers was discriminatory towards people living with HIV/AIDS. Some opponents have even proposed life sentence as an alternative punishment.
However, for those whose under-14 year-olds have been victims of such crimes, the Bill will ensure that offenders pay them reparation, as decided by the court. This is a welcome change from the current scenario where out-of-court settlements - in the form of paltry amounts or gifts of livestock - seem to bring relief to the guilty rather than the abused.