Alleged sexual abuse of deaf girls puts officials on the spot

Tuesday December 22 2020
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Some of the victims are receiving psychosocial support from shelter homes. PHOTO | NET

By Irene Abalo Otto

Sexual violence and abuse is a dark underbelly that continues to fester across communities in Uganda.

But it could be more pronounced among vulnerable communities such as girls and women with hearing and speech disabilities. 

Usually, investigations require medical examination reports and survivors often find themselves revictimised as they are put to task to prove the allegations. This often elicits trauma and shame among victims. 

This investigation reveals that those preying on these victims usually exploit their disabilities. 

They believe that because of the victims’  hindrances, they cannot be able to provide a plausible account of what transpired. 

“They have no means of communication (while in the community). They cannot read and write. Most of them are Primary Two or Three dropouts. Even their own parents cannot communicate to them,” Ms Hope Agwang, a former staff at Uganda National Association of the Deaf (UNAD), says. 

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For the survivors of sexual violence among this community, it is a tall order when the offenders are those in positions of influence. 

On a Friday afternoon, the orange glow of the radiant sun warmly embraced us in its rays as we set off to meet a 22-year-old former tailoring student at UNAD in Kiwanga, Mukono District. 

She completed a two-year course at the donor-funded institution. But she remains locked in depression after being abused.

 Her dream of becoming a fashion designer is like a mirage . She is now receiving mental and psychosocial support with an NGO after a protracted battle to prosecute the offenders run into hurdles. 

Ms Nabukenya (not real name), with the help of a sign language interpreter, begins to narrate the circumstances leading to the unfortunate incidents. 

Despite the odds stacked against her, the 22-year-old was eager to complete her education. She dropped out of school because her parents could not afford fees for her Advanced Level education. 

“I also wanted to become somebody in future,” Ms Nabukenya, who completed O-Level at Wakiso Senior Secondary School for the Deaf,  one of the two main government institutions for students with hearing impairments, says.   For those who choose to take their children to conventional schools, they have to part with at least Shs60, 000 per day to pay for the sign language interpreter, who attends class with the student. 

Ms Nabukenya later joined an NGO-funded vocational institution in 2018, and was optimistic that her fashion dream would finally become a reality. 

Little did she know that the institution that welcomed her with open arms would cause her misery and emotional turmoil. 

“Sometimes you would be in the tailoring room and they (abusers) come and pick you, hold your hand and start pulling you saying, let us go to the staff room, there is something I want to tell you. But when the centre manager would come,  they would change the conversation and start saying I am not a disciplined girl,” Ms Nabukenya  recalls. 

Today, she is one of three girls from the same vocational training institution undergoing mental and psychosocial support with Uganda Association of Women lawyers,  (FIDA Uganda), an NGO that promotes human rights. 

Sources close to UNAD told Daily Monitor  that Ms Nabukenya’s story is not isolated but only a tip of the iceberg at the school where officials have allegedly preyed on the girls for the last 20 years.

“These girls were keeping quiet until things started going bad. The abortions would affect them and they get sick. That is when they started coming out,” says a former staff, who preferred anonymity.

The students would always find solace in the confines of the school where they can easily express themselves among peers or teachers. 

However, in an environment where the teachers and other administrators become the abusers rather than protectors of their rights, the girls have no one else to turn to. 

On November 29, a director at UNAD reported a case of sexual abuse at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) Kibuli in Kampala. 

Out on bond

The suspects recorded statements and were later released on bond. The police later commenced investigations into the allegations and interviewed three witnesses who were willing to speak out. 

An April 11, police investigations report addressed to the chairperson of the Board of Directors at UNAD, highlights glaring administrative gaps, including facility designs that exposed the girls to abuse. 

“The vocational centre premises is not separated from the Uganda National Association of the Deaf offices so that students can be independent from staff and this puts students at great risk of sexual abuse by staff. There are no installed CCTV Cameras in different corners of the premises,” reads the report in part by Ms Rose Nalubega, the Commissioner of Police in charge of the Sexual and Children Offences Department. 

Ms Nabukenya says there were teachers and administrators who would report to the institution as early as 6am and call out the student they had interest in.

“ Most times, he would arrive very early by 6am then he would call me to go to his office. That is when I would go to his office. He used to withdraw (contraceptive method) so I would not get pregnant. Afterwards, I would usually be tested (for pregnancy). He would say if I tell any teacher, he would make sure I am sent away from the school,” Ms Nabukenya narrates. 

The 22-year-old says she was aware that one of the offenders, a male staff member, was married with three wives and was only using her for his sexual pleasure.

Ms Nabukenya says he would take her to his home in Ntinda, Kampala, and after abusing her, he would then drive her back to school. 

We sought to speak to other students, including minors who were sexually abused while at the institution. 

Whereas there is anecdotal evidence that provides leads into this abuse, the victims are too scared to speak out. 

A parent in Kanungu District whose daughter confided in him, and was considering legal action against the abuser and school administration later declined to have an interview with NTV,  our sister media outlet. 

Police are still documenting more cases of the alleged sexual abuses of girls at the institution. The cases span through the leadership of three prominent figures who have held coveted positions among persons with disabilities. 

 Those who knew where we could find girls who had left the school due to sexual abuse feared to reveal their homes. 

Some staff feared that they would lose their jobs if it were discovered that they spoke to the media. 

A police officer that interprets for the sexual offence department at CID headquarters in Kibuli only said the girls live in far-flung places from Kampala and could not be reached by phone. 

Circumstances

A former female staff member at UNAD told Daily Monitor  that what she experienced at UNAD left her scarred. 

“Everything at UNAD depended on who gives in to the demands for sex. For the sign language interpreters, those who declined were discriminated against or not given field assignments. That is why most of the interpreters resigned,” she says.  

So far, one suspect is on remand and the rest are either on police bond or were not questioned according to some sources that worked at the organisation.

Another former staff, who was in a senior management position, says male staff took advantage of the girls because there were no checks and balances.

“They used to even have sex with the girls during the day. They knew where the keys to the dormitories were. Because it is one building, their staff sometimes pretended that they were entering the toilet, then they would call a girl and sleep with her,”  the source says. 

 This sex web infiltrated the administration so much so that during the police probe, some of the concerns of the donors were confirmed. 

But what remains unclear is why did some of the suspects record videos while having intercourse with the girls?  Could there have been a darker conspiracy run by a vast global network to feed the appetite of pornography? 

“For these people, they do not filter information when they are communicating. Some are abusive, others are pornographic and they do not know that they are breaking the law,”  Mr  Kennedy Katabazi, an investigating officer at the CID, Kibuli, says. 

Mr Joseph Mbulamwana, the executive director of UNAD,  is among those named in a donor report as one of the alleged abusers. 

He declined to comment but when we prodded him to explain how the report names him as one of the abusers and recommended that he leaves office to pave way for further investigations, Mr Mbulamwana agreed to have a discussion off record.

Implicated

Further inquiries with other sources indicate that he had information about sexual abuse in the institution but ignored concerns from some staff that would raise the issue during staff meetings or approach him individually.  

He would often reluctantly brush off the concerns, saying the girls are adults.

Mr Alex Ndeezi, the chairperson ofBoard of Directors and MP for Persons With Disabilities is also cited in the report. However, he declined to speak to Daily Monitor,  saying the matter is under police investigation.

This newspaper could not independently verify these claims. The police claim they have spoken to some witnesses who are aware of these sex videos of the girls taken with the perpetrators. 

The phones were later taken for forensic analysis to ascertain the legitimacy of the videos. 

It has been about one year since the case was first reported but there is little progress in regards to the probe. 

Some of the challenges in the probe are glaring. Whereas staff at UNAD had clear administrative structures where they could report the alleged sexual abuses before it escalated, those they were meant to report to were implicated during an enquiry.  

We spoke to one of the key leaders in the disability associations in Uganda who says some of the issues in UNAD had manifested before the probe report, but those who were to help push for justice felt disempowered and left. 

Due to the alleged gross sexual abuse of some of the girls, FIDA Uganda is partnering with the police to ensure that the girls are connected to other partners for psychosocial support before the tedious judicial process of finding cogent evidence to prosecute the suspects.

Ms Elizabeth Kemigisha, a lawyer with FIDA, says they have found shelter for three girls. Due to their vulnerability and nature of abuse they had undergone, the girls have stayed at the shelter for more than two months.

Usually, survivors of sexual violence shelter for two to three weeks before they are either taken back home or to another safe space as investigations continue.

“We have been working with the victims on the current case for about two months now, and of course the process is still long. The process is very long because we are dealing with institutions that hold more power than the victims,”  Ms Kemigisha says. 

Daily Monitor could not get information about UNAD from the NGO Bureau, the entity tasked to coordinate, monitor and promote responsible and accountable conduct among NGO actors in the country. 

Donor investigation reports and mailing lists showed that the NGO Bureau leadership was given a copy of the report with recommendations for action to halt the abuses of the remaining girls and staff at the institution.

Currently, there are about 20 students in their final years in various courses at UNAD. 

These allegations constitute serious penal offences and some of them attract the penalty of death if they are proven with inconvertible evidence in competent courts dressed with jurisdiction. 

 Such probes require adequate funds and the best detectives who are not willing to ‘compromise’ with those implicated. 

Yet this is not the case as victims of sexual abuse who are usually from the lower rungs of society are left forlorn, dejected and isolated by a society that cares less about their ordeal.

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