By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tackling an "epidemic" of sexual violence in Uganda, in which disabled women and girls are most vulnerable to abuse, and seeking justice for the victims are at the heart of a campaign launched by the rights group Equality Now on Thursday.
The #JusticeForGirls initiative will enable women and girls who suffer sexual violence to pursue justice through local channels, avoiding the slow, complex and expensive process of taking a case to court, Equality Now said.
Victims have a "bleak prospect of accessing justice for such atrocious crimes", said the group's legal consultant, Kimberly Brown. Sexual attacks often go unreported because of victim blaming, financial constraints or ignorance of the law, she said.
"Unprofessional conduct and corruption are rampant at various levels [in the justice system], as is a lack of sensitive and appropriate treatment of people with disabilities who report crimes performed against them," Brown said.
Uganda is in the midst of a sexual violence epidemic, and most perpetrators go unpunished, the rights group said.
Rape is the first sexual experience of almost a quarter of Ugandan women aged 15-49, and 39 percent of women in this age group have been subjected to sexual violence, according to Uganda’s 2006 Demographic and Health Survey.
One in five Ugandans are disabled, and women and girls with disabilities are most at risk of sexual violence, Equality Now said.
"Often the burden of proof lies with the victim, families tend to keep quiet either to protect their supposed honour, or because of the stigma and lower societal value some community members attribute to people with disabilities," Brown said.
PRESSURE ON POLICE
In 2007, a 13-year-old blind, deaf and dumb Ugandan girl, Sanyu, was raped and fell pregnant, according to Equality Now.
Her mother told the authorities the only men who would have had access to Sanyu were her father and three brothers, yet the police did not pursue the case, the rights group said.
The police opened an investigation after the case was publicised in the media, but the government ignored Sanyu's mother's call for DNA testing to identify the rapist, and the case was closed, it said.
Following pressure and fundraising by rights groups, the case was reopened and DNA samples were taken from three of the four suspects in 2011, four years after the rape occurred.
The case will now be taken forward by Ugandan organisation Legal Action for Persons with Disabilities and the Equal Opportunities Commission, Uganda's anti-discrimination body, according to Equality Now.