According to UNICEF, millions of girls and boys around the world face sexual abuse and exploitation every year. They are subjected to sexual abuse at home, at school or in their community, and the widespread use of digital technologies is also putting children at risk. Worse still, most often, sexual abuse or exploitation occurs at the hands of someone a child knows and trusts. Child sexual abuse represents a global human rights violation of vast proportions with severe immediate and long-term health and social consequences to the children who are victims, MP Jeremiah Woda, a South Sudan representative in the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA), recently stressed. She expressed concerned that, among others, despite the existing policies and legal frameworks, the number of child sexual abuse cases in the East African Community is on the rise. MP Jeremiah Woda, urged EAC countries to enhance the provision of comprehensive psychological, medical and financial support services to victims and survivors of child sex abuse and sexual exploitation. Woda noted that child sexual abuse takes different forms including sexual assault, indecent exposure of children in the social media, child-grooming, child sexual exploitation, including using images of children to produce child pornography and child sex tourism. Various challenges still constrain any significant action against the phenomenon, including lack of public awareness, limited capacity of law enforcement officers to handle such sensitive and complex issues and fear of the victims to report sex abusers due to generally negative social reactions to disclosure, Wode noted. Ninette Umurerwa, the Executive Secretary of Haguruka, a Rwandan NGO whose mission is to promote and defend the rights of women and children, told The New Times on Sunday, July 10, that the problem of child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation “is worsening due to the internet and social media use.” Ninette Umurerwa, the Executive Secretary of Haguruka, a Rwandan non-governmental organisation whose mission is to promote and defend the rights of women and children, told The New Times that the problem of child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation is worsening due to the internet and social media use. “The law pertaining to this problem is clear and strictly applicable but due to lack of control over what children are involved in, including what they watch on TVs, and social media and how peers can influence them, it has worsened the situation,” she said. “Generally, the problem is currently critical because of children’s exposure to the internet, and most child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation is now happening online. Also, some parents are too busy to monitor their children’s daily activities which exposes them to many temptations. Children also dont know their rights and this makes them more vulnerable.” The regional Parliament adopted a related motion moved by Wode to recommend to the Council of Ministers, the central decision-making and governing organ of the EAC, to strengthen regional policies and measures to protect children against sexual abuse and exploitation; and urge partner states to enhance the capacity of law enforcement officers to efficiently handle cases of child sex abuse, among others. Woda’s motion also urged regional countries to enhance the provision of comprehensive psychological, medical and financial support services to victims and survivors of child sex abuse and sexual exploitation. During debate on Wode’s motion, lawmakers including MP Abdullah Hasnuu Makame [Tanzania] worried that crimes of child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation in the region are intensifying. “It is distasteful,” Makame said. “We are hearing about them, every day, in newspapers and radios.” MP Abdullah Hasnuu Makame [Tanzania] is worried that crimes of child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation in the EAC are intensifying. Makame suggested that the region emulates best practices from other parts of the world, to best end the problem. He recalled that in the UK, people who work with vulnerable people such as children are screened before being recruited. “You have to get a clean criminal record clearance before you are given clearance to work with such people. And, parents also have to be vigilant because nowadays, you have an uncle or a neigbhour who visits and does the indecent act. We have to be watchful, but we also have to talk to our children, educate them and tell them that their body belongs to them and they should not be touched by anyone.” MP Christopher Nduwayo [Burundi] urged the Council to come up with a mechanism ensuring that laws are harmonized, and when such criminals move from one country to another, they are arrested. “We have to blacklist them such that wherever they go, everybody sees him as a child abuser.” He was particularly distressed by a case, in early June, in Mwanza, northern Tanzania, where “a child was brutally” abused. “I witnessed some incident where an adult abused a child of less than six years. A street child. You find a mother living on the street and the same mother sends that child to beg and when it comes to evening you find the mother is already intoxicated and sex predators are just roaming around and they abuse a child of five or six years,” Nduwayo said. Families paid to remain silent His compatriot, MP Léontine Nzeyimana, Burundi’s former Minister of EAC Affairs, also told a heart-wrenching story about a case she witnessed in her home village a few years back. She told the Assembly how, in most cases, child sex abuse and sexual exploitation is done either by a relative or someone close to the family. “It has a very negative impact to the child who is defiled, and the entire family. I am sure in most of our countries our laws are very clear on this issue. But things become difficult when the family of the victim, most of the time, they somehow decide to keep this situation quiet when it is done by someone who is close to the family. “They feel ashamed to speak out and if it was done by someone who is rich they try finding an amicable settlement by giving some money and this becomes very bad. I witnessed this in my own village.” Nzeyimana recounted how a man in her village sexually abused and sexually exploited children between six and 10 years of age, for years, “but people never discovered it” until one day, one of the girls got very sick. The mother sensed that something was very wrong while she bathed the child. “When the mother was bathing the girl, she found that the child ‘was not normal’ in the intimate parts. When they took her to the hospital, they found out that the girl had HIV. Then the doctor started asking the girl what happened. Finally, the child mentioned the person who did it to her,” Nzeyimana said. Eventually, it was found that the man had sexually abused about 10 children in the area. By the time he was exposed, some had died. “Others could not speak because he gave them sweets, money and other things.” The worst part of it, Nzeyimana said, was that some members of the initial victim’s family “didn’t want to speak out because that guy was rich and he was giving money to the family to keep them quiet.” “One family wasn’t ready to take money. And, fortunately, I was there. I intervened and that criminal was taken to jail. He even died in jail because he was sick. This case is one of the very many cases which happen in our community. “Our laws are clear but our families and communities need to be sensitized not to keep these kinds of acts secret because if something happens to your daughter and you keep it secret that criminal will do it to another family. The life of that child is distorted.” Countries should increase vigilance Rebecca Kadaga, Ugandas First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister in charge of EAC Affairs, acknowledged the problem. Kadaga noted that, among others, all EAC countries are party to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child which sets out rights and defines principles for the status of children. Uganda ratified it in 1994, Rwanda in 2001, Tanzania in 2003, Kenya 2000, and Burundi in 2004. It is still a work in progress for South Sudan. Under Articles 21 and 27 of the Charter, partner states commit to take all appropriate measures to eliminate harmful social and cultural practices affecting the welfare, dignity, normal growth and development of the child and to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, including the inducement, coercion or encouragement of a child to engage in any sexual activity and the use of children in prostitution or other sexual practices. At regional level, Kadaga said, the EAC has developed policies to protect children. Given the gravity of the matter, Kadaga urged that even as more regional efforts are required, countries should also “increase their vigilance within their national jurisdictions.” On-scene trial EALA Speaker Martin Ngoga made the case of the crime persisting as a result of impunity, beliefs and cultural practices, as was the case in Rwanda a few years ago. He shared an experience that, possibly, can help. When he was the Prosecutor General, and MP Oda Gasinzigwa was Minister of Family and Gender Promotion, in Rwanda, Ngoga recalled, problems of child sexual abuse, defilement, and domestic violence were widespread. Back then, he said, things “had been taken as normal,” and sometimes based on some superstitious beliefs. “As Honorable Léontine said, there are some people who are untouchables in their places. So, we started a system of moving the court to conduct trials in the villages where it [crime] happened. The prosecutors, the suspects, and the judges, would all move to that place and conduct trials there [so as] to demystify the attitudes. We believed that practice wasn’t mob justice because we followed all the procedures and evidence [was] assessed on merit. But, three days of conducting a trial in the village, with media publicity, it had an impact than just sitting in the capital, conduct a trial and nobody knows that it even took place,” Ngoga said. “It helps to send a wider message to demystify the myth about some people and actually, to show that some untouchables can come, be tried in front of those who feared them, and be taken to prison for many years.” For Rwanda’s situation years back, it helped, he noted. Hold neighborhood morally accountable To shed light, the Speaker gave an account of how Rwanda was able to put a stop to forced marriages. “We had a practice somewhere in the east of Rwanda where a young man who admires a young lady would just mobilise a mob to grab her and once she is forced to spend a night in the young man’s home, she is presumed married. And I think it happens in other parts of east Africa. But we conducted trials and convicted some people. We believed that was rape. And it stopped, because by the time I left Prosecution, the statistics were such that those cases had dropped significantly,” Ngoga said. Even for domestic violence, he noted, holding public trials will help. “Go and conduct a trial in that place and actually try to hold the neighbourhood, at least, morally accountable. This thing has been happening, you all knew about it. Nobody bothered to report it.” It is good for a country to have laws but when “you are not innovative enough,” he said, the laws may not be helpful enough. “Having the laws is one thing but how you apply them, innovatively, to send a wider message, I think has more impact than just the way we do things in the capitals, and court rooms. We realized that it wasn’t helping and when we changed a bit, it helped.” By endorsing the motion, Ngoga noted that the regional Parliament was making “our modest contribution” in eradicating a problem that exists in many forms, not only child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation.