Investigating children’s rights violations in Northern Uganda
Article by Lukas Schretter
Lukas Schretter finished his secondment at CHIBOW’s partner organisation "Facilitation for Peace and Development" (FAPAD) in Lira in northern Uganda in April 2017. During his secondment, ESR Lukas Schretter investigated children’s rights violations in northern Uganda, gained insight into FAPAD’s activities and met with stakeholders and beneficiaries in the rural communities. After his stay in Uganda, Lukas completed a research report and shared his results and impressions with FAPAD.
FAPAD office building in Lira in northern Uganda
Promoting human rights through community empowerment
Founded in 2000 by three Ugandan natives, FAPAD launched operations in 2004 in response to the extreme violation of property rights of women and children in the Lango region, amidst other challenges brought about by the war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government. Following a cessation of hostilities agreement that was signed between the government forces and the LRA rebels in 2006, FAPAD continued in its efforts to build sustainable peace in northern Uganda and to facilitate empowerment of communities through capacity building, advocacy, and service delivery. The organization has grown to employ more than thirty employees and runs projects in four different departments: Social Protection, Legal Aid and Access to Justice, Good Governance, and Food and Income Security, which act in concert to fulfil FAPAD‘s mission „to promote human rights through community empowerment for protection of rights and realization of sustainable livelihoods in northern Uganda.“ Today FAPAD works in the districts of Lira, Apac, Oyam, Kole, Alebtong, Dokolo, Otuke and Amolatar, which comprise the Lango region of Uganda.
Since the focus of Lukas’ secondment was to gain knowledge about community-based structures and systems to prevent and respond to children’s rights violations, his placement in FAPAD’s Social Protection department offered him opportunities to speak to experts working in the field and to establish contact with children and their parents in order to learn from first-hand accounts.
Led by Babra Otuku, FAPAD’s Social Protection department campaigns for girls and women who are victims of exploitation, prostitution, trafficking, and forced and early marriage in the Lango region. The department furthermore serves as a platform for preventive dialogues when children are at risk of deprivation and violence. Through conferences with families and local leaders, it investigates how risks for children can be averted sustainably and seeks to strengthen family and community coping mechanisms. When children are being tortured, beaten, assaulted, or neglected by their parents, the department takes up counselling and, whenever possible, covers the medical bills of children whose parents are not able to pay for the treatment.
A "Documentary" board in FAPAD‘s Social Protection department exhibits a selection of cases that the office dealt with in the past.
Child neglect on the rise
Children’s rights violations, in their various forms, are prevalent in communities based in northern Uganda, cutting across tribe, religion, and class. Caused by poverty and cultural rigidities, high rates of unemployment and weak enforcement of policies to handle perpetrators aggravate the existing problems.
Police station and a CLO’s office in the Kole district in northern Uganda.
The most widespread children’s rights violation in Lango Region is child neglect, as stated by the stakeholders that Lukas met in the city of Lira and in the Kole, Dokolo and Alebtong districts. Instances of child neglect include but are not limited to child abandonment, refusal to pay child maintenance, child malnutrition, and denial of education. According to recent data women in Uganda have an average of six children, compared to a global average of two and an African average of five. Children growing up in large nuclear-family units are more likely to be affected by child neglect than others, such as are children growing up with parents that are suffering from alcohol abuse. Next to poverty and overpopulation, according to the Community Liaisons Officer (CLO) at the Kole police station, child neglect and abuse in many cases also are a result of the refusal of Ugandan parents to take care of their children from earlier marriages. HIV and AIDS, even though robust treatment and prevention initiatives have helped to reduce infections in recent years, entail even more suffering of children who lost one or both of their parents to the disease, with little support given by their families and communities.
For five children in a family in Bala in the Kole district, the situation seems to be particularly bleak: Lukas, along with the Child and Family Protection Officer (CFPO) of the local police unit, visited a family that had been addressed several times already due to evidence of child neglect. However, only the children were present at the family home, the youngest of them two years old and visibly malnourished, together with their aunt who provides them with necessities. As the children mainly have to survive on their own, the next step will be to locate the father and arrest him at least for one night, the CFPO explained, “to teach him a lesson” and to remind him of his responsibilities. Handling cases of child neglect and abuse, solutions usually are sought in cooperation with the parents. Child removal, guardianship transfer to foster parents, and temporary or permanent forced placements in children’s homes are ordered as a last resort, e.g. when the children’s relatives are deceased or unknown.
Similarly, the Probation and Social Welfare Officer in Kole emphasized that child neglect currently constitutes 90 per cent of all children’s rights violations in the district. The Probation Officer is empowered by the Ugandan Ministry for Gender, Labour, and Social Development to assist children when they are in conflict with the law or when their rights are infringed upon. After making inquiries about the respective cases, his expertise aims at enabling the court to make appropriate judgements. He stated that prior to seeking criminal prosecution, however, he tries to mediate between the children and the parents for a long-term solution: "Some cases are due to ignorance and [the lack of] knowledge and skills by the caregivers. What we do is to invite them to the offices for a case discussion. Then we do not blame them and say: ‘You have done this and that and we are going to take you to prison!’ We just educate them and in most cases they go back and change." Each case is unique, he stated, and only when effective mediation fails, legal aid is provided for a civil lawsuit against a parent accused of child neglect.
The problem of child neglect in northern Uganda is magnified by the legacy of the 20-year LRA insurgency, which saw thousands of parents killed by rebels, leaving children behind as orphans. While it is difficult to provide exact numbers, the LRA is not only responsible for the deaths of approximately 100,000 people and for abducting thousands of children in the region between 1987 and 2006, as consequence of the conflict also more than 1.8 million people were uprooted and forced into temporary camps, from which most have only recently returned into their homes. In the camps, according to the Probation Officer, families abandoned their community settings and parents diverged from traditional ways of raising children. With parents devoid of necessities and traumatized by war events, the political and social circumstances during the conflict also made it difficult to demand compliance to children’s rights regulations. While scientific research has been conducted on girls and women who had been captured by rebels and returned from the bush as single mothers, having borne children while in captivity, as well as on the relationship between the LRA conflict and different forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the aftermath of the conflict, comprehensive research on children’s rights violations as consequence of the war is still missing.
Child marriage and other children’s rights violations
Aside from child neglect, the CLO at the local police station in Kole stated, communities have to deal with a range of other children’s rights violations. These include child exploitation, such as child labour, child trafficking, child marriage, defilement as well as physical, emotional and sexual abuse and murder, including rare instances of child sacrifice. In addition to this, from a legal perspective abortion is considered a children’s rights violation in Uganda. Consequently, women are coerced to try ending their unintended pregnancies jeopardizing their safety and health by self-inducing or seeking a dangerous procedure.
Child marriage and child pregnancies are still a big issue in Uganda: Parents hope to secure their daughters’ financial security by marrying them off to men who are twice their age or older. Bride price can also be a motivation for parents to marry off their daughters because a younger bride means a higher dowry for the family. Moreover, limited access to education and traditional social norms are associated with child marriage, as girls are expected to fulfil their roles as wives and mothers at a young age. In addition, studies show that marrying off girls has been seen as a form of protection when parents feel unable to protect their daughters from rape. Even if the Ugandan parliament approved statutes in recent years to protect children’s rights and to end child marriage, cultural attitudes, low wealth and weak enforcement of the existing regulations remain major issues hindering Ugandan girls’ capability and personal development. The consequences of child marriage – including teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, leaving school early, domestic violence and psychological trauma – continue to deprive girls of opportunities to have a better future compared to boys.
FAPAD adopted a community-based approach to raise awareness about the dangers of child marriage and intervenes in specific cases. Studying case files in FAPAD’s Social Protection department, Lukas learned about Rehema’s story: 17-year-old Rehema (not her real name) was not allowed to finish her education at secondary school but forced by her older sister to marry a stranger. After escaping from her husband after five months of marriage, she turned to the Local Council 1 (the lowest leadership structure under the decentralized local government system), which assisted her with transport money. When FAPAD learned about Rehema’s situation, her mother had blamed her for running away and she had no place to shelter. In Lango culture, a girl’s parents are supposed to return the dowry when a girl runs away from marriage; due to her poor family background, Rehema could not afford to refund the dowry, nor her mother and her brothers who had already disposed of the dowry gifts. With FAPAD’s assistance, Rehema was able to report the case to the police for legal intervention. For an immediate solution, a family meeting was held to resolve the situation of Rehema’s school dropout, which led to Rehema’s mother finally accepting her daughter to return home and her brother accepting to support her joining a tertiary institution.
World Vision poster campaigning against child marriage. Office of a CLO in the Kole district.
Next to learning about the issue of child marriage, Lukas met with survivors and former perpetrators of various children’s rights violations in Uganda’s Lango region, such as a young man who as a child was assaulted by his biological mother with a machete and today, after being taken away from his mother’s home, lives with his father and stepmother. Another example concerns a family, in which a serious family dispute was ended following intervention from FAPAD.
Combating child neglect and other children’s rights violations, FAPAD sensitizes the local population about the rights of children through going to schools, community meetings, and churches. "We work with all stakeholders in schools to ensure a safe learning environment, equality and respect for all children. Here, we facilitate the school community to create and strengthen forums for dialogues between students, teachers and parents. We provide materials and information on rights of children to all children, teachers and the school management and policy-making bodies", FAPAD explains on its website. Police units also reach out to local communities, the CFPO in Alebtong stated, informing parents about their duties to provide for their children and to ensure that the children have adequate access to food, clothing, education and health care, while neglecting these responsibilities can result in criminal proceedings. "Some people are not aware of the implications of the law", the CFPO stated. "So, we had to inform them that child neglect is a criminal case."
In parishes and communities where children’s rights violations are rampant, sensitization takes place in cooperation with the police, local leaders and NGOs such as FAPAD. This includes teaching about the national legislation, the Children Act in particular. Wherever means of transport are missing or cannot be used, the CFPOs in Alebtong and Kole reported, FAPAD has been supportive providing vehicles and fuel to reach out to the communities and to take action.
Ensuring community ownership of interventions
FAPAD addresses children’s violations and SGBV on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, it sets out to achieve policy changes on a district and national level. Thereby FAPAD ensures that the affected people are always at the forefront of identifying problems and solutions.
As such, FAPAD has trained more than 1700 volunteers embedded within parishes and communities, which are referred to as Community Peace Promoters (CPP) and Child Protection Committee (CPC) members. The men and women are highly trusted in their communities and they therefore have been able to form their own informal groups, which help them to coordinate and address child protection problems. FAPAD furthermore continues to train volunteers and supports them monitoring the status of the children’s well-being.
Lukas had the opportunity to speak with three of FAPAD’s CPC members in the Dokolo district. Introducing Lukas to beneficiaries, the CPCs presented how they have been able to successfully provide counselling and guidance, organize dialogue and family group meetings, provide follow-up support, and raise community awareness on children’s rights. For example, Charles (not real name), who had been severely injured in a wood-cutting accident in the Dokolo region in 2014, received medical treatment after the local CPC referred the case to FAPAD. Due to the psychological strains and financial burden following the accident, Charles’s parents separated for some time but later restored their relationship. Not only did FAPAD arrange for the child to undergo medical treatment, the organization also provided support paying the medical bills, which the family would not have been able to cover alone.
In the Alebtong district, Lukas met with three CPCs and two families that had been addressed because of evidence of child neglect. The CPC chairperson in Alebtong reported that in total 25 CPC members in his district volunteer to handle children’s rights violations, thereby ensuring community ownership, wider coverage and sustainability of FAPAD’s interventions. In each village, several CPC members work together to ensure that decisions about difficult cases and possible referrals to higher authorities are made by consensus.
While the CPCs presented cases with successful interventions, they also mentioned that some of the cases could not be resolved at all. For example, in the case of a woman reporting her husband to the local leaders because of domestic violence and child neglect, neither the CPC, the clan leaders, nor the CLO were able to intervene successfully. Since the local police unit does not have a vehicle to visit the family, it has not even been possible to interrogate the accused yet.
Defending and safeguarding the rights of vulnerable populations
Lukas attended a training on advocacy campaigns, organized and delivered by FAPAD’s Good Governance department. The participants discussed how FAPAD perceives itself as a non-governmental organization and reflected upon its relationship with both the communities and the current government. At the core of the training was a lecture on policy analysis and critical steps to consider when advocating for and within the civil society. Based on current examples – such as land disputes due to a weak enforcement of land rights of widows and their children or the invasion of armyworms in the Lira district due to inadequate agricultural extension services – the participants furthermore analysed how FAPAD as an advocate will be able to achieve policy changes through key stakeholders on the national, district, county and sub-county level. For FAPAD as for any other Human Rights NGO, in order to address problems – such as children’s rights violations, SGBV, or rural livelihoods at risk – it is crucial to gather information about the policies already in place, build strategic relationships and establish credibility as an advocate prior to taking action.
A lot has been done to improve the situation of children in the Lango region, certainly in part to the credit of FAPAD. Though yet a lot has to be done, combating child neglect in particular. Due to poverty, the consequences of the LRA conflict, and population growth, children’s rights violations will remain a significant problem in the years to come. Increased efforts will be needed to significantly improve the situation and, most importantly, change must take place on all political and societal levels. FAPAD’s interventions and programs take place within limited term projects, such as FAPAD’s child protection project "Combating silent violence against children in Northern Uganda" (2013–2017), and provide the basis for stable and long-term solutions. Currently, FAPAD is applying for new funding to implement projects for protecting the rights of northern Uganda’s population and to realize sustainable livelihoods.
Lukas Schretter is an Early State Researcher within the European-Union funded research network "Children Born of War. Past, Present, Future" and is currently writing his dissertation at the Ludwig Boltzmann-Institute for Research on Consequences of War in Graz, Austria.
Lukas remains thankful to FAPAD, particularly program director Rob Otim and staff members Babra, Stephen, Kevin, Diane, Nathan, David, Isaac and Moses for their support. FAPAD volunteer Jimmy Otim introduced Lukas to community stakeholders and beneficiaries and provided him with translations from Luo to English. Lukas is also grateful to Early Stage Researchers Eleanour Seymour and Boniface Ojok for their advice and recommendations.