Sexual predators prey on Mbale teen food vendors

Some children vending foodstuffs in Mbale City last week. Photo / Phoebe Masongole 

What you need to know:

  •  Janet, who looks frail, says the perpetrator, who was her daily client, promised to marry her and later lured her into sex.

Janet, 16, a food vendor on Republic Street in Mbale City, was impregnated early this year by a boda boda rider who later abandoned her.

 Janet, who looks frail, says the perpetrator, who was her daily client, promised to marry her and later lured her into sex.

 “But when I told him I was pregnant, he stopped answering my calls. He even abandoned his place of work at Clock Tower Stage and relocated to a new stage,” she says.

 Janet, who was in Primary Six at Buwamwagu Primary School in Bukonde Sub-county, dropped out of school last year after her parents failed to pay her fees and buy scholastic materials.

 She relocated to Masanda Village in Industrial City Division, where she stayed with her elder sister in a single room.

 “My sister advised me to get a job and that’s how I ended up in a restaurant to hawk food to earn a living. I move from street to street looking for customers and taking their orders,” she says.

 Janet adds that most of the customers are men, who want both food and sex, something she says makes the job difficult.

 “They sexually assault us through bad touches and whenever we report, our bosses do nothing about it and they instead tell us to be humble to customers,” she says.

 Hajara, another food vendor, who has been working for one month, says she is finding it hard to cope.

 “Whenever I am washing plates or serving food, men keep on tapping on my bums and saying words that offend me,” she says.

 Hajara dropped out of school after her father disowned her.

 “My mother then requested my aunt, who owns a restaurant, to give me a job of vending food so that I can get some money and help myself,” she says.

  Hajara complains that boda boda clients keep following her.

 “Whenever I serve them food, they give me more money and later in the evening, follow me, asking for sex,” she says.

The annual police crime report 2021 indicates an increase of 8.2 percent in sex-related offences compared to cases reported in 2020.

 The Daily Monitor investigations found that attempts to seek justice by the assaulted food vendors are met with threats of dismissal from the employers.

 The food vendors are paid between Shs3,000 and Shs5,000 per day and their work entails hawking food, cleaning, washing plates and cooking.

 Winnie, another food vendor, says many of them are lured into sex because they earn little pay.

 “The money we get is little compared to the work we do. It’s not enough to pay our bills and this makes us vulnerable,” she says.

 Ms Sarah Nakiyimba, the officer-in-charge of hotels in Mbale Central Market, says the girls work under poor conditions.

 “They are sometimes denied pay by their bosses yet they have responsibilities like paying rent and taking care of their families,” she says.

  Ms Janet Nakhaminza, the officer-in-charge of restaurants in Bubulo Market, Manafwa District, says after being sexually assaulted for long, some girls join prostitution.

 Ms Aisha, a vendor in Mbale City, says the council should refrain restaurant owners from recruiting minors.

  “We have come up with an association so as to try and address a number of issues from the rights of payment, over working, sexual abuse and long hours among others,” she says.

 In Uganda, 25 percent of the girls aged between 15 and 19 years have given birth or are pregnant with the first child.  According to the United Nations Population Fund report, while the country’s main strategy for harnessing demographic dividend is built around ensuring that adolescents are healthy, educated and skilled to take up jobs that will be created under  Third National Development Plan (NDPIII), the reality on the ground paints a grim picture.

 Ms Sophie Namaganda, a restuarant owner, says men should understand that some girls vend food to get school fees.

 “They are determined but men want to sexually exploit them. They defile, impregnate and abandon them,” she says.

 Mr Ivan Khaweka, a boda boda rider, says their colleagues take advantage of the vulnerability of the girls.

“Those in office exploit them with promises of giving them jobs,” he says.

 However, Joel Khauka, another boda boda rider, says the girls are to blame for their alleged poor dress code and greed for money.

Ms Betty Balisalamu, the director of Women with Mission, an NGO, says the hard economic situations force many girls to vend food.

 “We are also trying to engage and counsel the teenage girls on the streets to abstain or go for safer sex but we know they are easily lured by men,” she says.

 Mr Yusuf Makweta, the executive director of Human Rights Authority in Elgon region, says: “The government should bar minors from vending food because this is the reason they end up being sexually abused”.

Mr Aldon Walukamba, the Media Advocacy and Documentation Coordinator at Reproductive Health Uganda, says school dropouts face a lot of challenges.

 “They are raped, defiled and this leads to pregnancies and child marriages in most of the communities. Sometimes, they are infected with HIV/Aids,” he says.

 He says their organisation has established 19 clinics that carry out counselling and provide girls with information about their sexual reproductive health and rights, among other things.

 “This information is aimed at empowering the young girls to know what to do when certain things manifest on their bodies or when certain people approach them,” he says.

 Mr James Kutosi, the spokesperson of Mbale City Council, says they condemn sexual abuse. “If there is such a culprit, the law should take its course,” he adds.

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