Sexual Abuse & Culture: The Plight of Girls in Karamoja

Sexual rituals and their impact on populations are as varied as the cultures they are steeped in and shaped by. While some cultural rituals related to sex are beneficial, many are outright harmful to participants, with women bearing the brunt of abuse. I have studied and worked with victims of culturally-related sexual abuse in Uganda for years, but I had not had a close and personal interaction with those from the Karamoja region in northeastern Uganda until I traveled there recently for a Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) training in my role as a Global Health Corps fellow with Days for Girls.

The tiresome nine-hour journey aside, I was very excited to be visiting a part of Uganda I had never been to before. The scenic landscape, beautiful greenery, and captivating sunset soothed my aching back and feet when I arrived. After a little exchange of warm pleasantries with the welcoming team, I decided to get some much-needed sleep, as there would be a lot of work ahead.

We would be working with over 300 girls over the seven-day stay, with the goal of empowering them to be champions of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) for themselves and their community. This is my passion, and I could not wait to get started! By 9:00 am the next morning, we were at the venue set to deliver training on menstrual hygiene management. As with all communities in the country that we had trained before, I knew the need for this information in this community was enormous and could not wait to deliver it.

Everything went smoothly until the fourth day of training. We released the girls at about 5:00pm to go back home. A few minutes later, we heard very loud screams. I was startled and confused. “What is happening? Can we run over to the girls?” I demanded of my visibly terrified co-trainers. The people around us did not seem bothered. I wondered if they knew something that I did not. I continued to ponder their indifference as we all speed off towards the girls.

“Are they safe?” I voiced my concern. “Yes, it is common,” volunteered one of the team members who works in the region. As the girls approached and rushed into the safety of the training blocks, I frantically asked what had happened. I was greeted with dead silence, but the horror in their eyes and the pain written all over their faces spoke volumes as the girls cowered for safety. “He almost raped her,” one of the girls finally explained.

I asked a million questions: “Who? What man could attempt to rape a thirteen year old girl? What rapist is bold enough to attack a group of girls? Do the police know about this?” The knowing, indifferent looks on the faces of the trainers from the region informed me there was a lot I did not know. Eventually, one team member volunteered to drive the girls home after things settled down.

Over dinner, one of the local female trainers provided a hair-raising explanation for what we had observed: “You looked very shocked by the attempted rape on the girls,” she teased. “Yes, I still am! Isn’t it disheartening?” I replied. “You would die of a heart attack if you lived here. Rape is culture!” she explained.

I was stunned speechless! I had never had someone speak to me about rape in this nonchalant manner, let alone in a gathering of educated peers. We soon learned how deeply embedded rape is in the culture of this region — when a man sees a girl he likes, he approaches her to ask for courtship; if she declines, the man hatches a plan to rape her. He can even ask other men to come to his aide. Once raped, the girl has no alternative but to become that man’s wife. The local leaders and police are aware of the entire process, and their silence equals complicity. While pressure is mounting from rights groups to ban the practice, it is deeply engraved in the lives of the people of Karamoja.

Girls learning how to make washable sanitary pads

The next day I planned to talk to Mary, the girl who almost got stripped of her dignity. I found her during the break, looking cheerful like nothing had happened the previous evening. Through a translator, I inquired about how she was doing and if the training was going on well for her. “I am fine and I love the training,” she told the translator. “Tell us about yesterday,” we asked her. “Well, I know that man — he was here at the window during the training and I have met him at church. I don’t like him and I will never marry anyway until I am at least 18 years old.”

Mary’s resolve was promising, but how was she going to survive the rapist’s advances over the next five years? Would she manage that with nothing to keep her safe? In a culture that approves rape and a community that condones it? These and a lot more questions lingered in my mind, but Mary went on: “The training has equipped me with knowledge of SRH and how to defend myself from people who want to abuse me. I want to become a champion for this in my community.”

Sometimes we are not aware that the small things we do can change the lives of other people, but the truth is that every drop we deposit in the ocean of social change makes an impact. My mind still broods over the numerous women who have lived through this experience and the girls who have to grow up knowing their right to choose when and if to have sex and become mothers could be snatched away in the name of culture. We have a lot of work to do, but we can change the world, even if it’s just one person at a time.

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