Refugee parents and caregivers are trading young girls for sex in exchange for food, money and other life necessities as the Covid-19 lockdown bites harder, a new report by FAWE-Uganda has revealed.
The report also states that school-going refugee girls are being forced into odd jobs, further exposing them to sexual violence and abuse.
The survey titled; The Situation and Impact of Covid-19 on School-going Refugee Girls and Young Women in Uganda, was conducted between December 2020 to May this year.
“Increase of early marriage has been heightened by the increased poverty and vulnerability among refugee households attributed to the pandemic that has forced many families to marry off their daughters to help mitigate family financial burdens,” the report reads in part.
“Families marrying off their daughters receive money, food and other goods in return. School closures opened an opportunity for the caregivers and parents to pressure, lure and entice girls into marriage under the guise of “schools may never open again,” it added.
The study was conducted in three refugee settlements of Alere (Adjumani District), Kyaka II (Kyegegwa) and Palabek (Lamwo), and 25 other districts across the country.
According to the report, the situation for refugee girls in Palabek and Alere refugee settlement camps remains critical.
Although the proportion of girls who said they were married at the time of the study reduced from 6.6 percent to 3.3percent, refugee girls and young women (3.5percent) were disproportionately pressured by their parents or caregivers to get married during the lockdown than refugee boys/young men (1.6percent), the report said.
In Alere settlement, some learners (girls) accompany parents and caregivers to work, while others have taken on activities that are harmful and more than 15 percent were found to be involved in a range of economic activities, including working as barmaids.
At Kyaka settlement, the proportion of refugee girls who engaged in sexual intercourse increased by 1.6 percent from 11.5 percent before lockdown to 13.1 percent during the lockdown.
Here, refugee girls as young as 10 years have been lured to vend fruits and vegetables in the small sprawling trading centres in refugee settlements.
According to the report, the lockdown also heightened vulnerabilities for refugee girls to sexual engagement emanating from disrupted livelihood sources for families, limited access to adolescent sexual reproductive health information, and increased exposure to violence among others.
“The disrupted livelihood sources accentuate an already dire situation leading to low access to basic services such as food, clothing including sanitary ware for girls. With the poverty rate in refugee communities more than twice the rate in host communities, increased hunger and desperation makes refugee girls a target for men who sleep with them in exchange for such basics as food and even sanitary materials,” the survey says.
Ms Susan Opok Tumusiime, the FAWE Uganda executive director, said there were instances in which parents sent out their daughters to have sex with men as a means of raising money to feed the family.
“The main drivers of the trade were discovered during the research to be the need to supplement family income (51.3 percent), working at the urging of parents or caregivers (20.5 percent), directly fending for family (12.8 percent) and caregiver inability to provide (7.7percent),” the report showed.
Ms Opok said the research aimed at finding practical solutions to such challenges.
“The study unveiled enormous challenges faced by girls and young women during the Covid-19 pandemic, including increasing cases of sexual violence like teenage pregnancy, child marriages, rape, defilement and limited learning opportunities while at home,” she said.
“About 2.6 percent of girls and young women (against 1.8 percent in the non-refugee population) have experienced sexual violence as a result of work and 2.6 percent (against 1.6percent in the non-refugee population) said participating in work made them lose interest in school,” she added.
Ms Opok said refugee settlements such as Palabek, the proportion of refugee girls who reported being pregnant during the lockdown was as high as 4.8 percent implying that nearly one in every four refugee girls (23 percent) were aware of a peer who became pregnant during the lockdown period.
“Pregnancy cases here were found to have increased by 0.8 percent among girls and young women from 3.3 percent to 4.1percent, higher than the 1.8 percent among nationals who reported being pregnant during the Covid-19 lockdown,” she added.
The Palabek refugee settlement camp commandant, Mr Julius Kamuza, said vulnerability among refugees during the lockdown worsened when the World Food Programme cut down the food rations.
He said when food rations were slashed and movements within the settlement restricted, the level of teenage pregnancies shot up as homesteads looked at their young daughters as assets.
Mr Geoffrey Ocana, the Lamwo probation and social welfare officer, said early pregnancies among school-going refugee girls have been persistent.
“Poverty levels here are worrying and in such situations, children and young girls are forced to engage in early sex by themselves to get money and meet their needs to they do so in the interest of their parents, covid-19 found this vice in progress already,” Mr Ocana said.
“The continuous patriarchal nature of our societies and cultural biases against women and girls have relegated them to conditions of total despair, that we urgently need to rally together and address,” he added.
Mr Ocana said more than 2,000 cases of teenage pregnancies have been registered at Palabek settlement in the past year.
The FAWE-Uganda report revealed a 22.5 percent increase in pregnancy among girls aged 10-24 seeking antenatalcare in the first three months of the lockdown from 80,655 in March to 98,810 in June 2020.
The study also indicated that Kampala recorded the highest number of pregnancies at (24,059), Mukono (8,639), Kamuli (7,847), Kasese (6,957), Jinja (6,950), and Mayuge (6,648).
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says refugee women and girls in Uganda are extremely affected by the pandemic according to its recent ‘Inter-Agency Rapid Gender Analysis – Covid-19’ report.
Based on household surveys with more than 1,500 refugees in Kampala and the settlements, the assessment found that the loss of income has contributed to an increased incidence of gender-based violence and negative coping mechanisms such as survival sex and sale of alcohol.
At the end of April 30, Uganda was estimated to host more than 1.48 million refugees and ranked among the top five refugee-hosting nations worldwide.