Every child has the right to be protected from violence and live free from fear, neglect, abuse and exploitation. Yet three quarters of children in Uganda experience some form of violence – either physical, sexual or emotional. The majority of children (68% of boys and 59% of girls) have experienced physical violence, while one in three girls and one in six boys suffer sexual abuse. The scars can last a lifetime and often result in mental health issues and psychological distress during adulthood.
Strengthening enforcement of laws
Effective child protection needs strong laws and policies to be in place, and in Uganda there are many positive steps taken on paper. There is a national strategy to end violence against children in school, and corporal punishment, child marriage and other forms of abuse are illegal. But in reality these laws are seldom enforced or resourced. Many people and officials, especially in rural areas, remain unaware of them. Save the Children advocates for greater resourcing towards implementation and enforcement of these laws, and is developing localised and child-friendly versions to make them more accessible to communities.
Stopping violence in schools
Schools should be safe places where children can learn, thrive and be protected – but around 90% of children in Uganda say they first experienced physical violence at school from a teacher. Many teachers and parents think it's necessary to instil discipline, but in fact it has a hugely negative impact on learning and a child's wellbeing. A child learns best when they feel safe and protected, and when school is enjoyable and engaging.
We work with teachers and schools to promote alternative positive discipline methods built on mutual respect and participation, and set up children's councils to come up with more effective and appropriate disciplinary measures. We also work with schools, officials and the local communities to monitor and address other forms of violence in schools, such as sexual abuse and bullying.
Protection for children affected by conflict
Uganda hosts 1.3 million refugees, and 60 percent of them are children. Most have fled brutal conflicts, and many have witnessed terrible violence or lost friends and family. Save the Children runs Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS) which provide them with a safe place to learn, play and socialise with new friends, under the supervision of specialist caregivers. They can also access other services such as mental health and psychosocial support. We also have teams of caseworkers who identify the most vulnerable children and make sure they get the support they need – such as children who arrive alone or separated from their parents, orphans, children with disabilities or those in need of counselling.
Tackling child marriage and teenage pregnancy
Forty percent of girls in Uganda are married before they turn 18. One in four teenage girls over 15 have already given birth or are pregnant. This has a devastating impact on their future – it forces children out of education, traps them in a cycle of poverty, and endangers the lives of young mothers and their babies. Child marriage can be both a cause and effect of violence against children.
We work with communities to change attitudes and practices towards child marriage. We support adolescents to know their rights and the laws that protect them, and to get access to sexual and reproductive health information. We lobby officials, with partners and children, to try and get laws enforced. We work with schools to improve girls' access to education, for example through availability of sanitary pads and gender-appropriate washrooms – the lack of which often causes girls to drop out of school. Staying in school longer can reduce the chance of girls becoming pregnant or married.
Strengthening child protection systems
An effective and well-funded national child protection system is vital to ensure that we can prevent and respond to violence against children. But in Uganda the system is fragmented and weak – the referral system is poorly coordinated, services for survivors are scarce, children are not empowered to speak out and report abuse, and traditional beliefs often perpetuate certain forms of violence. Most cases are not reported, and only 32% of those reported result in arrests.
We advocate for greater investment in strengthening these systems at national and district level; support government-led initiatives such as the 24-hour "Sauti" 116 toll-free national child helpline; and work with schools to strengthen reporting and response mechanisms.
To end violence against children in Uganda we must work together. The global Joining Forces collaboration brings together six leading child rights organisations – Save the Children, Child Fund, Plan International, SOS Children's Villages, Terre des Hommes, and World Vision. Together we are supporting Uganda to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 16.2 to end abuse and violence against children, and supporting children to be at the forefront of initiatives to end violence in schools.