From Sexual Exploitation to Education: A four-year grant from the Big Lottery Fund is enabling ChildHope and the Uganda Reproductive Health Bureau (URHB) to work with commercially sexually exploited girls on Uganda’s main transport route in the East of the country, which connects Kenya, Somalia and other East African countries to Kampala. The project works in the towns of Busia, Malaba, Naluwerere, Idudi and Mbiko, on the highway into the capital city. ChildHope’s support to URHB has included increasing organisational capacity and awareness on child protection and safeguarding, key aspects of working with girls who have been sexually exploited.
Most of the girls are from extremely poor rural villages and leave home in search of a better life, with dreams of getting good jobs in the city. For the majority, the reality is very different and they end up making ends meet by selling sex, sometimes for nothing more than the cost of a meal, before even reaching Kampala. They are vulnerable to violence and abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS, and unwanted pregnancies, putting their health and lives at risk. Although many are under-18 they are no longer seen by many as children in need of help, and can be shunned, stigmatised and treated with disdain by health service providers and other adults who should be helping them. Working at night and in private spaces, they are hidden and can easily be ignored by organisations aiming to support children and young people.
In 2016, a ‘head count’ of commercially sexually exploited girls in the five project towns identified 2617 girls. By the end of 2016 the project had worked with 825 girls.
In spite of the violence and abuse they face, the girls we work with are far from helpless. They played a significant role in designing the project, telling us how they feel sexual exploitation can be tackled and how they can move away from a reliance on commercial sex to make ends meet. The project also has a strong focus on working with adults, who should be protecting the girls but are often the perpetrators of violence and abuse against them, or treat them badly when the girls try to access essential services.
The project enables girls to make healthier, safer choices and to avoid commercial sexual exploitation. It prepares them for a more secure future, through education, training and building skills and confidence.
At the same time the project is creating an environment where community members are more aware of the importance of protecting children from sexual exploitation and abuse. In particular, it aims to change the behaviour of truck drivers, increase condom use and end the sexual exploitation of young girls and women.
80% of the girls participating in the project so far report that they are not at risk of returning to sex work.
62% of girls interviewed reported receiving better services and facing less stigma.
Condom use is increasing, but behaviour change takes time, and the project is increasing its focus on this area in 2017.
This year of the project will focus heavily on ensuring that interventions are sustainable and learning is extended beyond the project, working closely with other NGOs and local government – passing child-friendly by-laws, strengthening child protection committees and working closely with community, government and school leaders to increase awareness of child protection and generate a zero tolerance approach to child abuse and sexual exploitation.
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