Wednesday January 8 2014

It is the government’s duty to protect poor citizens

By Irene Ovonji-Odida

On behalf of the NGOs that have offered service and support to the victim of the alleged gang rape by five Pakistani men, I am writing to correct the misinformation that has been circulating in various media that she was ‘dumped’ in Mbarara by ActionAid Uganda. While appreciating the concern of the MPs who visited her, it is unfortunate that this happened without approaching the concerned organisations to establish the circumstances in which the relocation was done as this would have led to accurate information about the case.

We appreciate the commitment by UWOPA to work with us to correct the misperceptions created. This young lady was not abandoned but was relocated with financial support given to her caretaker, following consultations with her and advice of health practitioners ActionAid Uganda have been paying for since September.

FIDA Uganda has monitored and provided legal support for the criminal case against the arrested suspects, including holding brief each time the case is up for mention in court, most recently on December 19, sought a meeting with the Inspector General of Police and sought to interest the DPP to closely monitor the case.

Indeed following a meeting of ActionAid Uganda, FIDA Uganda, UWONET and CEDOVIP with UWOPA, in which the MPs were fully briefed about the status of the case, it was appreciated that the support of ActionAid Uganda has led to significant physical improvement as medically verified. Still it is important to recognise the victim is still affected by trauma, and to respect her need for psychological recovery. Our interest in this case as NGOs is to support the victim to achieve justice within our resources and competencies.

While we have appropriately handled this particular case with regard to accessing required healthcare, material and legal support, we should not lose sight of the fact that ultimately it is the role of the government to protect citizens as it is the government that receives public funds in form of taxes. To better protect citizens from such abuses and to secure access to justice when abuses happen will require the government to shift to pro-people and pro-poor decisions.

The government needs to fix systemic weaknesses in state institutions mandated to ensure justice, to change certain policies, law and practice, and stop poor budget prioritisation which weaken government programmes, mandates and services. We appreciate the interest of MPs in this case and their expressed willingness to support the NGOs supporting this victim to get the police to investigate this case more seriously. We urge Parliament to go beyond this individual case and pressure the government to address the systemic issues that have increased vulnerability, especially of less powerful citizens to injustice, such as failure of the police to date to arrest three of the accused Pakistani men.

More broadly, the government should urgently reform the law and practice on sexual offences and re-think its neo-liberalist policies which have resulted in de-regulation of foreign investment, immigration, have reduced protection of workers and labour rights to a bare minimum and de-prioritised social services such as healthcare, leaving poor persons like this victim reliant on the support of NGOs and well wishers.

As we fight for justice for this victim, Ugandans need systemic change to protect millions of other Ugandans affected negatively by poor policy, legal and budget choices the government has made. As NGOs, we call on citizens to support us in our struggle to push for greater commitment by government to protect citizens.

Ms Ovonji-Odida is the CEO, FIDA Uganda