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How the Uganda child helpline is helping in the fight against child rights abuse

By Kabuye Ronald

The government of Uganda in conjunction with several organizations on the 23rd of November 2021 launched the “Sauti 116 awareness campaign” aiming at sensitizing the public about the helpline that is taking the fight against child abuse to greater heights

In 2014, the Ministry of Gender Labor and Social Development (MGLSD) in partnership with UNICEF and other stakeholders established the Toll-Free Number 116 as the Uganda Child Helpline (UCHL)/Sauti to encourage children and adults report cases of child abuse and all forms of child rights violations.

The UCHL service is one of the mechanisms to strengthen child protection in the country as a government of Uganda led service. UCHL links children at risk, in need of care and support & protection to various services through case management reporting pathways.

The brand Sauti emphasizes the importance of strengthening and safe guarding voices of children especially the most vulnerable and marginalized who are often unheard and denied protection and care. The Uganda Child Helpline, also known by its brand name Sauti, offers a toll-free telephone service on the short code 116 which is accessible on all telecommunication networks in the country.

The telephone service which operates 24/7 is just one of the ways in which the Child Helpline aims to protect children but entails other approaches to offer child protection which include amongst others handling walk-in clients’ cases, responding to cases reported through the U-report platform, Following up of child abuse cases reported through various Media (including social media), Handling cases that entail Online Child Sexual Abuse; and Community awareness raising campaigns in schools, communities and on radios & television, etc.

In 2017, six child focused organizations such as Child fund, plan international, Save the children, World Vision, UNICEF, UNFPA, Child fund International, CDC and World Vision among others joined forces towards one goal, to end violence against all children and secure the rights of every child.

According to the communications officer Save the Children Peninah Asiimwe, the campaign launched aims at popularizing the helpline which is already operational to reach out to as many children in the communities across the country.

This will be done through various media campaigns on main stream media through radio spot adverts, Television adverts and posters that sensitize children and caretakers about their rights and how to reach out for help through the help line.   

The state minister of gender, labor and social development in charge of youth and children affairs Sarah Mateke Nyirabashitsi said during the launch that they have witnessed an increase in violence against children, and an assessment carried out by joining forces revealed that 65.8% of children interviewed across six districts in Uganda had reported an increase in physical or emotional violence from their caregivers in the month leading up to December 2020 alone.

She noted that they also reported an increase in early and forced marriages, and child labor in Uganda since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic while 26% of the children interviewed said that child labor should be made a priority for future interventions.

“Violence has far reaching effects on a child and their development. It also undermines the very fabric of society. The good news is that violence against children is preventable. We can protect every child, however, we all have a role to make this a reality, as government parliament, teachers. Religious leaders, cultural leaders, the media, parents and caregivers. We must all begin by speaking out on violence no matter where it occurs. It is important, crucial and urgent to report any form of violence against children.” Said the minister.

According to research done by Save the Children, 75 percent of the world’s children experience violence. Violence takes many forms, including physical and emotional abuse, sexual abuse and exploitation, and neglect or deliberate deprivation. Growing up with violence, and the threat of violence, can lead to life-long physical, emotional and mental health problems.

1 in 4 victims of modern slavery are children while 8 million adolescent girls aged 15–19 have experienced sexual abuse and Nearly 720 million school-age children have no legal protection from corporal punishment at school

Now the country director, Save the Children Dragana Strinic, disclosed that currently, 28% of Uganda’s children were found to be in child labor in 2020, an increase from 14% in 2017 according to the National Household Survey for those respective years.

According to UNICEF’s Child Protection Specialist Laura Fragiacomo, the helpline is an essential service not only because it gives a voice to children, but also because it provides children with critical access to safety and justice.

“UNICEF’s commitment is to continue funding the operations of the Uganda Child Helpline, to ensure safety for every child, while also supporting the Government’s social welfare workforce and other child protection actors in providing child protection services. UNICEF is working with UNFPA to upgrade the helpline so it can also accept calls on Gender Based Violence (GBV) in general.” She notes.

The 2016 UHCL Annual Report notes that nearly 3,000 cases of child abuse were reported and over 1,000 callers sought counselling services through the helpline.

Child neglect was the most reported form of abuse at 48 per cent followed closely by sexual and physical abuse. A 2018 national Violence against Children Survey that measured the prevalence, nature and consequences of physical, emotional and sexual violence against children in Uganda revealed that one in three girls while one in six boys, suffer sexual violence during their childhood and seven in 10 boys suffer physical violence indicating a significant need for support. 

Minister Nyirabashitsi says the helpline currently has centers in 68 districts and receives on average 9509 calls a day. She also pledges that starting this year, the help line will also offer support to victims of gender-based violence.

To ensure effective case management and referral of cases, the UHCL applies a multi-level stakeholder approach that engages different offices including the district Probation and Social Welfare offices, police and other justice actors, and health centers as required. 

As the world struggles to contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many children currently at home are being exposed to increased risk of violence – including abuse, torture, physical, sexual and emotional exploitation.

In the first week of April 2020 however, no calls were answered at the Sauti call center, as the helpline closed due to restrictions imposed to curtail the spread of COVID-19 in Uganda. Two weeks after it closed, the helpline reopened.  Over the next 14 days, between 10 April and 26 April 2020, 21,904 calls were received, reporting 269 cases.

The other challenge that the minister identifies with concern is that there are many violations that are going un reported and that many people turn a blind eye or are not equipped to report them.

The lack of access to readily available phones that the children would use to reach out to the center is still a huge a challenge to the realization of the initiative’s full potential.

It is on this note that the minister has urged parents, caretakers and community leaders in the custody of these children to always respond positively when the children express interest in reaching out to Sauti as this could save lives.

She says Poverty, cultural beliefs and practices as well as the prolonged lock down that has kept schools closed for over two years have been the major drivers of the increased child rights violations.

One of those cases was Ronald in Wakiso. When the cows started lowing at night, Ronald’s stepmother accused him of having played during the day instead of feeding them. She hit him hard on the head, resulting in a deep cut. Ronald’s uncle who made the call revealed that the local council chairman was not available as the lock down had found him in another district and the helpline was his only other option.

May 4th 2021, police in Nansana Municipality located in the out skirts of Kampala arrested a former teacher at Step-by-Step School in Nansana municipality for sexually abusing 16 girls. The Deputy Kampala Metropolitan Police Spokesperson Luke Owoyesigire who identified the suspect as Moses Mpanga Aldo said the suspect was outed by one of the victim’s parents who reached out on the helpline after her child confided in her.

The 14-year-old who we shall call Sharon said she and other girls were on several occasions lured by their teacher to his home where he took turns on them. The child who was first tested for HIV was later taken through counselling sessions with her colleagues by the SAUTI team, Uganda police and development partners including Child Fund and World Vision.

“Sharon who was previously withdrawn and depressed, now seems happier and back to her normal self.” Said her mother, Jessica Asabo.

Following the call, the helpline contacted Wakiso police who quickly intervened, took him out of his father and stepmother’s home, sought treatment for Ronald, and with the Probation and Social Welfare Officer found temporary but safe abode for him at a paternal aunt’s home.

Of the 269 cases reported in the first 14 days of the helpline reopening, child neglect, physical and sexual abuse cases constituted most of the cases and there also were two reports of murder.

The helpline is providing counselling, referrals for further support, or follow up of cases with the district level Probation and Social Welfare Officers, the Police and other relevant stakeholders and service providers. 

In 2019, the helpline managed 4574 cases of violence while in 2020 it received and handled 5558 cases, it is highest number to date due to the long lock down period.

During the periods of lockdown, calls regarding sexual violence increased to 43% from 38% making sexual and neglect the most reported cases.

The minister reiterates that when children know their rights, they will speak up when those rights are violated thus the campaign. “This is evidenced by the increase in calls from children.” She adds.

In Masindi district for instance, local government leaders together with human rights activists were appalled to discover that the district registered a surge in defilement with defilement of more than 1000 cases reported between January to November 2021.

Annet Karamagi, the Masindi district probation and social welfare officer says 10 of these were compelled in to forced marriages in for payments ranging between one million to two million Uganda shillings but the victims were able to reach out.

One of these is Catherine who reached out to Uganda Child Helpline 116 using her neighbor’s mobile to reach the regional center which through Karamagi was able to rescue her and arrested the culprit who was later arraigned in court and charged with aggravated defilement.

“Catherine was unfortunately already pregnant but we have put her on counselling and rehabilitation through follow up by our social welfare staff to first of all enable her love her un born child but also prepare her for school once schools resume in January 2022”. Says Karamagi.

Since its establishment in 2014 as a mechanism for child protection, the Uganda Child Helpline (UCHL) 116 on average receives 100 calls per day, reporting different forms of violence against children- physical, sexual and emotional. It also addresses issues around online safety for children.

Karamagi attributes the escalating defilement cases in the district to poverty, corruption, child neglect, child labour, domestic violence and prolonged lockdown that led to the closure of schools due to Covid-19. Through Sauti 116, 264 suspects were tracked down, arrested and arraigned in courts of law.

Also known as ‘Sauti’, a Swahili word for ‘voice’, the helpline, which is run by the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development with funding from development partners, provides counselling and refers children to district service providers for additional support. In some cases, when local structures are unable to address the cases, the helpline staff also directly follow up cases related to violence against children throughout the country. 

The continued growth and investment in the helpline is a show of commitment by government to protect the children of Uganda from violence and abuse. The campaign is a promotion and empowerment of children to prevent and report all forms of violations against Children.

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