Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Police in Gulu have arrested three women for drugging their children, in two cases with fatal outcomes. (Photo: Simon Jennings)
Extreme poverty among young mothers in northern Uganda is driving some to dose their children with medication when they go out at night to earn a living as prostitutes.
Others simply abandon their children in the evenings, leaving them at risk of accidents in the home.
Three women are currently in custody in the town of Gulu alone for sedating their children. In two of the three cases, children died.
One of the cases involves a 23-year-old woman who, this August, accidentally killed her twins by giving them the antidepressant valium to make them sleep, before going out to work in the sex trade in the bars and clubs of Gulu.
She was arrested and charged with murder.
According to the regional police spokesman for northern Uganda, Johnson Kilama, towns like Gulu are experiencing a surge in cases of this kind.
“[Women] are giving this drug to children so that they go and look for money,” he said. “Death cases are common now especially in this rural area like [Gulu suburbs] Kony-Paco and Kasubi.”
Kilama blames the rise in prostitution on high unemployment rates among young people in the north as it recovers from 20 years of conflict. Warfare by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army left more than 100,000 people were killed and 30,000 children abducted between 1987 and 2006, as close to two million people sheltered in displacement camps across the north.
War Child Holland, a group which provides support and education to sex workers in Gulu, says enduring poverty has driven young mothers to desperate measures.
“Some of them would give [their children] drugs, some of them would tie their legs, some of them would give [them to] a neighbour, some of them would just leave them,” Gillian Kiplagat, the organisation’s field manager, said.
She says many cases of this kind have occurred in Amuru district and in the town of Bibia on the border with South Sudan, as well as in Gulu.
A former sex worker, now 20, told IWPR how she and the two women she was living with used to administer drugs such as the antihistamine piriton to their children to put them to sleep while they went out to work in the sex trade.
“It depends on the age of the child,” she said, describing the doses they were given. “[Some] children are given a half [pill] while others are given a quarter – so long as the child can sleep for the whole night.”
She explained how the three women were driven into the sex trade.
“We are girls that gave birth when we were still very young and we wanted to do something for the future of our children,” she said.
In response to the misuse of sedative-type drugs, some officials are now calling for tighter sales controls. At the moment, valium is freely available without prescription.
Police spokesman Kilama said officers were working with the local community, and warned that anyone found to be illegally drugging a child would be charged with attempted murder.
“We appeal to [people to] keep on reporting such cases to the local authority,” he said, recommending that sellers should ask each customer “whether he has got a medical report from the doctor”.
The local council chairman for Gulu district, Ojajra Martine Mapenduzi, points out that unlicensed pharmacies and medical centres also sell drugs, creating what he called a “big threat” of misuse.
“These drug shops are operating without people who are qualified,” Mapenduzi said. “There are also a number of people who give wrong prescriptions simply because they do not have any background in the medical sector.”
Mapenduzi said district officials and the national ministry of health are discussing what action to take.
“As a district, we want to make sure we stop the drugs shops operating illegally,” he said. “We also have to make sure that people who are not qualified leave such kinds of practices.”
Santa Oketta is local councillor for the Bar-Dege and Layibi areas of Gulu, and says child neglect is very common there. She puts it down to the long period of displacement that left many orphans and widows to fend for themselves without the support of families.
“During [the war] there were a lot of problems,” she said, adding that after such a conflict, “usually you don’t expect the best. It will take us time to recover.”
All too often, girls living rough on the streets, often with no surviving family, end up drifting into prostitution.
“They are exposed to the risk of rape, they are exposed to risk of being lured into things that we culturally don’t accept, like sex work, lured into drugs,” Kiplagat said.
Groups trying to help young sex workers are calling for more help to get them out of poverty.
“They are very many. Most of them are young girls, they have no husbands, others have children but the husbands are not there,” said Gladys Laker, who founded the Mon Pi Dongo-Lobo group to tackle child prostitution.
Working with the local authorities, Laker plays a key role in identifying problem cases across the district.
“You find one single small house with four or five girls inside. Automatically you guess that these may be those girls who sell their bodies,” she said.
Mapenduzi said the fathers of such children needed to take responsibility, and be aware that they could face prosecution on grounds of neglect.
“If there is a problem, that problem can be between you and your wife but the child has to be safe,” Mapenduzi said. “So I call upon men, especially those who have children – whether you have a child out [of a relationship] or you are not on good terms with your wife – you need to know that once the child is in danger, you as a father will also be subjected to whatever the law requires.”
Arthur Okot is an IWPR-trained reporter in Gulu.
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