One day as 14-year-old Grace was home, she saw a man whom she knew was a friend to his uncle, walk to the house where she lived.
It was on Bugala Island in Kalangala District where she lived with her uncle during holidays. That day, her uncle had not accompanied the stranger home.
“I have left your uncle at one of the shops in the centre and he has sent me to ask you to pack some of your clothes within few minutes. We are travelling somewhere and we are going together with you,” the stranger is said to have told Grace.
By then, she was only 14. With no knowledge as to where they were going, Grace also hurriedly packed some of her clothes as she had been told by her uncle’s friend. Shortly, the journey started. When they reached the shop at Bugala trading centre, Grace’s uncle gave her Shs1,000 and left her under the care of his ‘friend’. Her uncle said he would follow them shortly after. The stranger and Grace rode on a motorcycle to one of the boat docking stations. There, a motorised engine boat awaited them.
“Get into the boat and we go,” Grace recalls the stranger ordering her, as the boat set off to an unknown destination.
By the time they reached where they were going, it was evening. The ‘stranger’ ushered her into a house that she later on learnt belonged to him. When it got darker, the stranger started undressing as he ordered Grace to undress as well.
“He told me that if I screamed, he would kill me and dump my body in the lake. He forced me to have unprotected sex with him. I accepted because I feared for my life,” Grace recalls.
The following morning, Grace says the ‘stranger’ locked her in the house and left. He left the key with one of the ladies operating an eatery to provide her daily meals.
“For the three days I was locked in the house, I did not eat the food they brought me. One day the food lady forgot to lock the door and I used that chance to run out. There was no nearby police station I could report to for help. I managed to talk to one of the fishermen who sympathised with and sailed me back to Bugala Island after narrating my ordeal to him,” she recalls. Luckily, she did not get pregnant, but sadly, contracted HIV/AIDS.
With just two days to the end of the 16 days of activism, Grace’s story shows one of the ways teenage girls are sexually exploited. Worse still is when parents or guardians of such teenage girls who are supposed to be their protectors, end up serving as perpetrators of gender based violence against girls for short term monetary gains.
“Young girls on the island have little or no correct information on sexual reproductive health and they end up into getting exposed to early pregnancies and sometimes contracting HIV/AIDS,” says Peace Namayanja, the programmes officer at Joy for Children Uganda.
As the organisation today concludes its three day field activities at Kalangala to create awareness among girls and the local communities about teenage pregnancy and child marriage, Namayanja says the main challenge faced by girls and women at islands such as Ssese in Kalangala include defilement, child marriage, parental neglect and teenage pregnancy.
“Kalangala is a fishing community that is comprised of fishermen from different walks of life. They have a false superstition that the more they sleep with young girls, the more fish they harvest. This coupled with the little information on sexual health that girls have, it accelerates child marriage, teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDs infection on the island,” Namayanja explains.
Joy for Children Uganda is an organisation that is involved in the fight to end child marriage, teenage pregnancy and gender based violence against women and girls in different districts of Uganda.
Micheal Opeto Okwalinga, the local council one chairperson at Lutoboka landing in at Bugala says one of the drivers of child marriage at the island is poverty and lack of knowledge about the importance of educating a girl child.
“When some parents at the island realise that their daughters have developed breasts, they think they have come of age and are ready to be given away in marriage. Some of them drop out of school when they get pregnant and become hopeless in life while others contract HIV/AIDS,” Okwalinga says.
According to the 2014 Uganda Bureau of Statistics National population and Housing Report on area specific profiles, females at Kalangala aged 12-17 who have given birth are 176 which is approximately 10.9 percent while those aged 12-19 who have given birth are 618 which is approximately 25 percent.
The findings show that HIV prevalence rate at Ssese Islands, including Bugala is 27 percent, higher than the national prevalence rate of 7.3 percent, marking it as a hotspot for promiscuity.