Expert report says Ugandan children are being sexually abused online but fear to report
Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | The internet has become one of the most powerful tools for children to connect, explore, learn and engage. Often it is in creative and empowering ways. But in Uganda, online platforms are increasingly being used for child sexual exploitation and abuse, according to a new report.
The report notes that 10 out of every 100 children surveyed said they had been offered money or gifts for sexual images or videos of themselves in the past one year and three out of ten of those children did not tell anyone about it.
Meanwhile, nine out of every 100 children surveyed noted how they had had sexual images of themselves shared without their consent in the past year. This means close to 215,000 children had been violated in the past one year alone.
The report titled, “Disrupting Harm in Uganda” came out of a joint collaboration of ECPAT, INTERPOL and the UNICEF Office of Research— INNOCENTI and was funded through the End Violence Partnership’s Safe Online Initiative.
Released on Nov.16 in Kampala, the report exposes upsetting realities of online child sexual exploitation and abuse in the country. It shows how children who regularly use the internet are experiencing online sexual exploitation and abuse but are also not reporting the perpetrators to the authorities.
At the report dissemination symposium in Kampala, Dr. Jane Muita, the Deputy Representative of UNICEF in Uganda, said online child sexual exploitation and abuse is complex because children have more information than parents and caretakers in regards to communication technology.
She said parents and caregivers face a big challenge to educate children about online child sexual abuse and encouraging them to opt out of using of some of the digital platforms. Muita said parents and caregivers needed education about how digital platforms and legal systems work while case management systems which cater for prevention and protection needed to be strengthened.
Sarah Mateke, the Minister of State for Gender, Labour and Social Development said the government’s Child Helpline (Sauti 166) has been upgraded to accommodate gender-based violence.
Rogers Twesigye the research coordinator at the UNICEF Office of Research (UNICEF-INNOCENTI) advised parents, caregivers and other people that take care or do work involving children to understand that restriction of internet use for children is not the answer. He said mediation is crucial.
“We need to support children to maximize the opportunities provided by the internet but also protect them and safeguard them from the harm that comes with it,” Twesigye told The Independent.
Details of abuse
The researchers define online child sexual exploitation and abuse as “situations involving digital, internet and communication technologies at some point during the continuum of abuse or exploitation.”
A nationwide survey sampled 1,016 internet-using children over a year starting in early 2020 up to early 2021. The report says children who participated in the survey were first asked about their experiences of sexual exploitation and abuse in general.
This is because online child sexual exploitation and abuse does not only happen to children while they are in the digital environment but can also occur in the offline environment with the help of technology.
According to the report, online child sexual exploitation and abuse mostly occurs on Facebook and WhatsApp. The report also found that boys and girls are subjected to differing forms of online child sexual exploitation and abuse.
Three in ten children surveyed who had experienced online child sexual exploitation and abuse said they did not tell anyone about their experiences because they “did not know where to go or whom to tell.”
Some did not disclose to anyone because they did not think the incident was serious enough, while others were worried that they would get in trouble, because they felt that they had done something wrong. Others said they did not think people would believe them. In other instances, the children were not aware that an offence was in fact being committed against them.
The researchers found that risk of legal self-incrimination also deters victims from coming forward given that pornography, homosexuality, and sexual activities between children are illegal in Uganda.
Rogers Mutaawe, a senior programme manager at the Uganda Youth Development Link, a Kampala-based NGO that was involved in the survey, told The Independent that people involved in online child sexual exploitation and abuse are often people the child already knows.
Rogers Twesigye from UNICEF-INNOCENTI who has worked on the project since April 2019 also told The Independent that the children who, for instance, shared a photo of themselves were often either in love, flirting or having fun and they trusted the other person, and they found nothing wrong with sharing such images.”