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Teen boys Caught in legal Web of defilement law

Edmund Sanders

KAMPALA, Uganda – Two love-struck teens. A secret affair. Feuding families that tear them apart. It has all the elements of “Romeo and Juliet,” Uganda-style.With her pink-and-white school uniform and shy grin, Maska Justine was just 14 when she caught the eye of Wakalanga Alex after her family moved to his middle-class neighborhood in Kampala.Wakalanga, a slender boy two years older but still too young to shave, began a flirtation, sending love notes through a mutual friend. Soon the teenagers were walking home together from school, stealing kisses when no one was looking. A few months later, Wakalanga asked Maska if she wanted to “play sex.” The young lovers rendezvoused on the dusty floor of his father’s office-supplies kiosk.Her pregnancy exposed the romance. In most parts of the world, such delicate situations would be handled privately, between families or tribes. But after his liaison with Maska became known, Wakalanga was sent to jail, where he awaits trial. Maska was left pregnant and heartbroken.In Uganda, what Wakalanga did qualifies as a capital offense, technically punishable by death, though no such sentence has yet been rendered.The East African nation has one of the toughest “defilement” laws anywhere when it comes to girls. Spurred by a burgeoning women’s movement and a growing anti-AIDS campaign, Ugandan lawmakers in 1990 made it illegal for any person to engage in sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 18. Unlike statutes in most other countries in Africa and the rest of the world, the law makes no distinction based upon whether the sex was consensual, or on the age of the alleged “defiler.” Boys, however, cannot be defiled under the law, either by older women or men.By contrast, in the United States, age of consent under statutory rape laws varies between 14 and 18, regardless of gender. In some states, the offense is only a misdemeanor if consenting participants are close in age.The Uganda law was intended to crack down on pedophiles seducing girls or offering money in exchange for sex, a serious problem throughout Africa. With AIDS on the rise, older men prey on school-age girls, believing the risk of catching the disease to be lower. Others believed tales that sleeping with virgins could cure AIDS.But legal experts and children’s advocates in Uganda now call the law misguided.”We’re going about this in the wrong way,” said Evelyn B. Edroma, senior adviser to the Justice Ministry. “We’re trying to fight a social vice. But you can’t legislate against primal social behavior.”The law largely has failed to hit its intended targets. “Older men are buying their way out by paying the families,” said Shanti Parikh, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has studied sexuality in Uganda.Instead, the defilement law is ensnaring hundreds of teenage boys like Wakalanga whose only offense was engaging in sex with their underage girlfriends. The average age of those arrested is 21.”These are nothing more than young people finding out about life,” said Geoffrey Odaga of Save the Children, an advocacy group in Kampala that is preparing to challenge the constitutionality of the law by arguing it discriminates against boys.Although adult pedophiles have been given prison sentences as long as 14 years, allegations against boys are usually dismissed when they involve consensual sex. Frequently, that’s because the girls refuse to testify. (Many young couples, in fact, continue their relationships while the boys are incarcerated, the girls making furtive visits.)Nevertheless, boys can find themselves caught up in the legal system for more than 18 months because Uganda’s courts are flooded with defilement cases. More than half of all capital cases pending before Uganda’s high court are for defilement. Because of the potential death sentence, only the high court is permitted to hear them. Due partly to the backlog, the total number of pending cases has nearly doubled since 2003 to more than 6,000.Uganda’s prison system is ill-equipped to handle the boys. Despite a law that prohibits sending children to adult prisons, some boys barely into their teens spend days, weeks or even months in local jails, mixed in with killers, rapists and other hard-core criminals. The boys are often subjected to beatings and rape by the older inmates, putting them at risk for AIDS.Wakalanga spent three weeks in a local jail before being transferred to a juvenile home. Within hours of his arrival at the jail, he said, older inmates beat him, searching for anything of value. As he cried on the floor, they laughed: “You’re a member now.”Boys from wealthier families and older men usually pay settlements directly to the girl’s parents to avoid being exposed to police and facing government prosecution. “Law enforcement only hears about it when the parties disagree,” said Theo Webale, attorney at the Legal Aid Clinic.Wakalanga is among 50 young men being held in the Naguru Remand Home in Kampala, a juvenile prison. Most here remain on average six months to a year while they wait for their cases to be heard or dropped, warden Asiku Nyakutar said.They peer outside through barred, broken windows and sleep in two dank rooms, lined with rows of narrow bunk beds. Once a week they’re permitted into the facility’s dirt parking lot for a game of soccer, but otherwise they move only between their dorms, a single classroom and a 40-foot-long outdoor courtyard.”It’s a terrible place,” said Wakalanga, reclining on his lower bunk.Six months ago he was living a comfortable life with his family. His favorite subject in school was chemistry, and he hoped to become a lawyer like his uncle. But after months here, he’s missed last term’s exams and will probably have to repeat an entire school year.His father, angry over Wakalanga’s actions, refused to pay the $120 bail that could have gained his son’s release.Most often, boys are arrested on little more than the word of the girl or her parents. Even when girls deny a physical relationship, parents can still press a defilement charge.One 16-year-old at Naguru said he was arrested after neighbors complained that he and a girl were alone in his room, even though both denied anything happened.Many blame the explosion of cases on greed. Before the law, families or tribes typically settled such situations by giving the girl’s parents a few goats, worth about $20. If the boys or men were willing, shotgun marriages might be arranged.But the severe consequences of the law have inflated the price of settlements to upward of $600, an unobtainable sum for many Ugandans. Some families have sold off land or cattle to keep their sons from arrest. Others have sent the boys into hiding.”Defilement has been turned into a business,” said Katumba Jackson, 17, who said he was falsely accused by the live-in housekeeper of a local man. Jackson said the man was seeking to avoid repaying a debt.A dispute over money sealed Wakalanga’s fate. The two families had been friends and neighbors, but when Maska’s family learned of her pregnancy, they asked the boy’s parents for money. When they were rebuffed, they moved away to keep the teenagers apart.Maska has been raised by her aunt and uncle since she was 9 and her parents abandoned her. The uncle, Joseph Matiko, 31, said he brought up Maska as if she were his own, but that he could not bear the costs of a baby. “I have my own kids to think of,” he said.Matiko asked Wakalanga’s father, who owns two small retail shops, for about $900.”I warned (the children) that they were too young and they were spoiling their future,” said Mutebali Simon, Wakalanga’s father. “But they wouldn’t listen. I told them that if there’s a problem, don’t come running to me.”Simon offered $300, but only if Maska had an abortion. By then, however, she was five months pregnant, too late to safely terminate the pregnancy.When Maska was due to deliver the baby, her aunt and uncle sent her to the countryside, where medical care is cheaper. But during the delivery, she bled heavily and the baby boy was stillborn.Maska is back in Kampala, recuperating and trying to resume her life. She still suffers from nerve pain in one leg from the difficult delivery, and the ache in her swollen breasts is a constant reminder of her loss.Now 15, she’s eager to return to school. When asked about her future, she talks enthusiastically about wanting to become a nurse. But when the subject of her baby comes up, she sinks uncomfortably into a chair and looks down, her voice trailing off into a whisper.”I didn’t get to hold him,” she said. “Sometimes I think about the baby, but I don’t know what I . . .”Her uncle said he can no longer afford school fees because he paid for her medical bills and the baby’s burial. He worries that the trauma has tainted Maska forever.”She has no hope for a good life anymore,” Matiko said. “They destroyed her life.”The young lovers say their courtship is over. “How could I love him?” Maska said. “I don’t feel anything for him anymore.”But when pressed, she admitted that she secretly visited Wakalanga in the remand home on Valentine’s Day. “I had to talk to him,” she said, glancing out the window to ensure her uncle could not hear. “I had to tell him about the baby.”The couple said they sat alone that day, lamenting their plight and concluding their families must be “cursed.”Wakalanga still can’t understand how it came to this. “What I did was bad, I guess,” he said. “But I didn’t know it was a crime.” Vail, Colorado


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