Life in Uganda
Uganda is a country of 25 million people with over half (13 million) being under age 18. Over the next 20 years, it is likely to double in size. 2.3 million (9%) of these youngsters are known to be orphans, having lost one or both parents. In the north, the number is significantly higher with households that support four or more orphans.
Uganda’s rural areas hold 85% of the population with poverty being highest in the Northern at 46%. Northern Uganda has the largest population of children classified as income poor and the highest proportion of vulnerable, aged 0-17 (43%) which include orphans, children not attending school, child laborers, children living in child-headed households (often with children of their own), and children with disabilities.
Poverty, Health, and Food Security
Most people live simple, rural lives, feeding themselves through gardening (aka subsistence farming). There are few opportunities to earn money. Ten million people are living in poverty with 2/3 of them being below the age of 18. Poor people have little access to adequate food, health services, education or clean water. Those in poverty often die from preventable diseases such as malaria. There is relatively little access to doctors or midwives. The health situation is made worse when people are unable to adequately feed themselves either because there is not enough to eat or the right things to eat. Thirty-eight percent of Ugandan children (9.5 million) are growing up with poor physical development for this reason. Of the people trapped in poverty, children bear the greatest brunt. Poverty affects children’s access to education and results in early entry into work, which exposes children to exploitation, early pregnancy and motherhood.
Water and Sanitation
Safe water and the proper disposal of waste are essential for the prevention of many diseases. In rural areas, people often must fetch water over long distances and carry them back in Jerry cans. This work takes up time which might otherwise be spent getting an education. As such, inadequate water supply can have a direct effect on a child’s development.
HIV/AIDS has been responsible for most orphaned children in recent years. It is also an active threat to all children as they grow older as many were infected as children themselves. There are approximately 2.3 million orphans in Uganda, mostly to blame are AIDS, malaria and armed conflict. According to UNAIDS data, there are 940,000 people (1.5% of the population) currently living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda. The loss of parents renders families, communities, and economies unable to function normally. This is further exacerbated when already vulnerable children live with a chronically ill guardian in a population already living below subsistence levels.
It is not illegal for guardians to keep children out of school. This may be done due to lack of school fees, need for the child to work or care of extended family members. This leads to inequalities, especially where girls are concerned. Girls are more likely than boys to be denied an education, and if orphaned and living with an extended family, they may only get a second chance at an education after their cousins have been sent to school. Today in Uganda, only 14% of all children completing primary education go on to attend secondary school and most of these are boys.
For most Ugandans, it is considered a luxury if one lives in a permanent house. In rural areas, it is most common to live in a mud hut with a thatched roof and to be sleeping on dirt floors with little or no covering. Households often consist of only children with the older ones looking after their siblings. In such cases, improving their lives in nearly impossible.
The distress caused to young people by conflict is horrendous. For two decades, 1986-2006, the Northern region has been trapped in a violent conflict between the government forces and the “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA). Children were particularly affected by the conflict and were emotionally, physically and sexually abused by members of the LRA. Moreover, an estimated 25,000 children were abducted and forced into roles as soldiers, laborers, sex slaves or human shields in combat. Female children, ages 14-15, comprised 20% of the abductees. Many of the abducted girls were turned into sex slaves. Only a small number of the abductees have been able to return home over the years as child mothers were infected with AIDS by their abductors. Children who tried to escape the LRA were either killed or forced to beat and kill other abducted children. Reintegration of abducted children back into their communities has been difficult as many were rejected.
Violence against children is particularly widespread in countries in the Eastern and Southern Africa region with one-third of girls between the ages of 13 and 24 experiencing some form of sexual violence and one-quarter experiencing physical violence as a child. Uganda is home to over 50 tribal clans, often with their own unique dialect. Some of these have cultural practices which expose children to violence and exploitation (female genital mutilation, child marriages, child sacrifice). The crisis of sexual violence is particularly acute with rates of child sexual abuse being 20% for girls and 8% for boys. One-third of females and 1 in 7 males have experienced sexual violence prior to age 18. Also, between 2008 and 2011, 69 cases of child sacrifice were reported in Uganda. Given the illegal and hidden nature of the practice, the number is probably much higher. Children have been sacrificed for quick wealth, prosperity and protection from evil spirits.
The consequences of violence against children is far-reaching and can affect children’s health, hamper their development, learning abilities and school performance. It can inhibit positive relationships, provoke low self-esteem, emotional distress and depression and lead to risky and aggressive behaviors. It can lead to reduced capacity to communicate and form emotional bonds and a cycle of gender-based violence.
**Statistics and observations were drawn from UNICEF’s “Violence against Children in Uganda” report & the Uganda Ministry of Gender, Labor & Social Development’s “National Policy and Strategy for Orphans & Other Vulnerable Children.”