Jinja is not the same place it used to be. From an industrial hub to Uganda’s top tourist destination, people from all over the world have come through the town on the Nile.
No doubt, Jinja has reaped the economic benefits; tourism has revolutionarised the nightclubs, bars, restaurants and resorts. But foreigners are providing an underground source of income too, one in which the tourism industry is becoming increasingly complicit.
Sex tourism is seen in the attractive young Ugandan females hanging off the arms of aging white men at popular bars in town. Or in the Ugandan men hoping for visas and opportunities abroad, in turn “kept” by mzungu women. But it is not limited to these clichés alone. The definition of sex tourism has come to include both domestic and foreign business people, transport workers and military personnel. It can include nationals away from home in their own country. It can range from a typical transaction with a consenting prostitute, to a relationship built on money and false promises, to the sexual exploitation of children.
Children at risk
Last year, Aswan Tahisi, a bank manager in Iganga town, was arrested and charged with defiling a 14-year-old girl. According to police, Tahisi defiled the young street vendor after enticing her with money to come to his home.
Opio Ouma, Jinja district probation officer, attributes much of the problem to poverty.
“If relating with a mzungu will help them put food on the table, it is (seen as) a better alternative,” he says. “It is a two-way situation. The foreigner wants to explore sex with an African while the girl or boy wants money.”
The Emin Baro case was an extreme example. The Macedonian national is still sitting in jail awaiting fresh charges for defiling more than 50 young girls. His trial is in limbo while police try to piece together his sordid past, including how he jumped bail after being arrested for defilement in town of Malindi, Kenya – another popular tourist destination in the region.
In 2006, a Unicef report examined the effects of sex tourism on the exploitation of children on the Kenyan coast, and the results were staggering. In coastal tourism destinations such as Malindi or Mombasa, the report says up to 30 per cent of all 12 to 18 year olds are involved in casual sex work. Meanwhile, many full-time child sex workers have migrated to such tourist areas to cater to the bigger demand there.
The sexual abuse and defilement of children are already commonplace in Jinja. According to a 2011 study commissioned by local NGO Jinja network for the marginalised child and youth (Jinnet), only 0.4 per cent of people interviewed said that child sexual abuse has never happened in their families. Of the rest, 56.9 per cent said “sometimes”, 32 per cent said many times, and 10.7 percent said not recently, but that it has happened before.
The Unicef report found that high levels of acceptance by communities and local authorities have allowed for complicit members of the tourism industry to go unpunished for both promoting and profiting from child sex tourism.
One Jinja businessman who asked to be identified only as Brian says, providing a connection to sexual experiences is just good business.
“There are people who are not familiar with Jinja and would love to have the company,” he says. “We want to bring services nearer to our new customers.”
Image or accountability?
Uganda continues to ride the wave of tourism publicity from being named the top country in the world to visit by travel guide Lonely Planet earlier this year. The Prime Minister has actively tried to lure more people to visit through Twitter, and even posted a YouTube video talking the country up after the Kony2012 video threatened to scare them away.
Bearing the responsibility for that now rests with the Ministry of Tourism.
Vivian Lyazi, the ministry’s spokesperson, says regulations to guide the “orderly conduct within the hospitality service” will be out in the second half of this year.
“Child prostitution and the sex industry is not how we want to market Uganda,” he said.
Though Lyazi calls sex tourism a “backyard activity” that is difficult to monitor, the Unicef report says keeping tabs on the industry’s involvement in illicit activities would eliminate a major part of the problem. But the usual suspects – weak laws, urbanisation, and a sector that fails to trickle its profit down to the community – remain the main contributors leading to the sexual abuse of children.
At the root
Gaps in justice have been seen in local cases of child sexual abuse for years. Out of court settlements are a common compromise in the face of no legal support or intimidation from perpetrators, and victim’s families usually give up on pursuing justice.
A district police officer who requested not to be named for not being authorised to speak to press said last year, 2,765 cases of sexual abuse, defilement, rape and homosexuality had been reported.
But southeastern regional police’s criminal investigation boss, Mr Julius Agengo, said the number is in reality much higher, as many cases of sexual abuse are not reported to the authorities at all.
By targeting tourism centres and the establishments that support them, Uganda is slowly coming around to realize that businesses play a central role in protecting the country’s children. But whether industry players will be brought to book in a system known for letting its children down, remains to be seen.