Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Sixteen-year-old Ritah (not real names) is currently a resident at Wakisa Ministries, an abuse and pregnancy crisis centre in Wakiso district.
A herdsman lured the teenager into sex last year after introducing her to pornography. She explains that she would watch pornography with the herdsman whenever her aunt was away and re-enact the action later.
Ritah is a victim of the prolonged school closure, which forced learners to online learning. In an attempt to keep their children busy, parents were forced to provide them with gadgets such as phones, tabs, laptops and television to access lessons.
However, this exposed the learners to pornography, which is easily accessible on different platforms. The opening of some sectors, which allowed parents to return to work and leave the learners unattended too didn’t help the situation.
Officials from Wakisa ministries say Ritah is not alone. Jane Kansiime, a counsellor at Wakisa says that they are seeing an increase in the number of girls in a similar situation. “Previously, most of our cases were as a result of abuse that begun as a result of a friendship. Now, especially during this lockdown period, we are seeing cases like this where pornographic videos or movies are involved,” she said.
Joyce Namukasa Makanga, a mother and resident of Ndeeba in Kampala, says that she was recently shocked to find some pornographic content stored on the smartphones of her primary school children. “You cannot believe what our children are watching online. They are watching unspeakable and mature content,” Namukasa said blaming the problem on online learning, which has forced parents to give the children access to smartphones and other gadgets.
“Previously, we could not allow them to handle phones for this very reason but now, this pandemic has broken that rule. We buy them data for online lessons but we are not available to monitor what they use these phones,” she argued.
Henry Kiwanuka, another parent says that while online classes help, they need constant supervision.
“Before, I rarely followed up on what was happening. I would set up the class and go to another room in the house to also work. But by going through the search history, I discovered my children would leave the class and go to Google and start looking for music videos, what was happening in Big Brother Nigeria, how to make love, what is sex and so on,” he said.
Following this discovery, Kiwanuka says that he resorted to supervising his children’s lessons. Instead of being away while they learn, they now all sit at the same table where he keeps a close watch. But not all parents are fortunate like Kiwanuka to be able to work from home.
Many are forced to report to work every day. And while they are at work, they depend on technology to enable continued learning. Similar observations on how the hyped e-learning is exposing children to porn online on the internet while stationed in front of screens for hours have been made by probation officers who keep constant interactions with children and parents.
Fortunate Abaho, the Kiruhura District Senior Probation Officer says the vice is spreading very fast. She says that besides voluntary access to porn, there are online abusers who at times use digital platforms to influence and later sexually harass children.
Before the lockdown, a 2019 mini-survey conducted by the Pornography Control Committee in 36 secondary schools in Kampala, Wakiso, Gulu, Adjumani and Mukono districts established that many learners were being exposed to pornographic content and material while at home, majorly through televisions and movies.
Looking at the survey, Kansiime says that the challenge has been fuelled by the prolonged stay of children at home because of the unprecedented holiday of close to 18 months, which has come with unlimited access to the internet.
“Since this internet is unregulated, and many parents don’t know how these things work, children are out there exploring the internet and when they land on this pornographic material, they don’t want to stop watching since this is one of the subjects that we had limited them from knowing,” she says.
With a personal account, Kansiime further argues that children are also being exposed to pornographic material by both local and international television stations that don’t censor what they are putting out to children.
Over the weekend, many parents took to social media after observing a sort of strip dance airing on one of the local stations during day hours. Kansiime says that many children who have been exposed to pornography have ended up trying out what they have watched thus increasing incest in families and child to child sex in communities.
Although Uganda lacks data on child access to pornographic materials online, data shared by some online porn companies show that the average age of first exposure to pornography during the lockdown is 11-years.
As children spend more time online during the lockdown, international agencies like Europol, the United Nations and End Child Prostitution and Trafficking-ECPAT have reported that paedophiles and child pornography addicts have also increased activity to target children online to ‘groom’ them through befriending them on social media, building an emotional connection and luring them to perform sexual activities through photos and videos.