Rapists in Gulu Take Advantage of Mentally Ill Girls


Clad in a red floral T-shirt and pink skirt, a weary Nancy (not real name) sits on a bench at Palm Gardens in Gulu City while absent mindedly nibbling the lid of a pen she has been using to inscribe unfamiliar words on her palms.
Nancy suffers from selective mutism, a severe anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations, and autism (conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication).
Nancy, who is originally from Kitgum District, currently resides in Olailong Village, Library Ward, Gulu West Division in Gulu City.
The 35-year-old vendor at Olailong market is a mother of a 12-year-old daughter, who is yet to be told Nancy is her mother.
She says unscrupulous men took advantage of her mental illness and repeatedly sexually abused her between 2006 and 2009.
“It happened many times because when I get an attack, I escape from home, whether in the day or night. One day, at about 10pm, I was waylaid and assaulted. At the time, I couldn’t breathe and my throat was hurting while my body was numb just like my mind,” Nancy says.
“He (her abuser) dressed up, moved away and left me in the dark chilly night on a street in town that day while I went mute,” she recalls.
For a long time, Nancy says she was aware that she was being abused but because of her condition, she could not tell anyone that she had been raped.
Nancy says she suffered from trauma, nightmares and intrusive thoughts without getting any help because her condition prevented her from communicating with those who could come to her aid, until she became pregnant in 2009.
Although there might be some relief after she received psychosocial care from Gulu Regional Referral Hospital in 2018, her ordeal still haunts her.
“Ever since I acknowledged the fact that I had been abused, I have been going through panic and anxiety every single day,” she says.
Many mentally ill women in northern region have been subjected to the ordeal that Nancy went through.
Vicky (not her real name), another victim, is a mother of two children conceived as a result of her sexual abuse.
Her guardian, Philip Oringa, says: “She is mentally ill and her life is in danger every minute looking at her lack of security, whether in the day or at night. As a family, most times we only realise later that she has opened the door in the night and left the house to wander and sometimes she is trapped by men who sexually abuse her.”
Oringa, a resident of Laliya Village, Gulu East Division in Gulu City, took responsibility of Vicky in 2015 after the death of his aunt, Maliam Aliga, who ran an orphanage.
Oringa, a primary school teacher, breaks into tears as he narrates Vicky’s ordeal.
“On October 10, 2016, she had her first baby and because we were unable to provide for her, we took the baby to a baby’s home where she is now getting care, but because of lack of proper facilities to protect her, she conceived again and on November 25, 2017, she had her second born.”
Mr Oringa says he has struggled in vain to trace the father(s) of Vicky’s children.
“Whereas my biggest fear and dilemma is how to introduce Vicky to her two children for fear that it could traumatise them, I just gave up on tracing their biological father(s) considering the circumstances of all her pregnancies,” Oringa adds.
On March 21, 2020, the Women’s Probono Initiative, a local NGO advocating for the rights of women and girls suffering from mental illness, sued the Gulu District Local Government and the Attorney General over sexual abuse of mentally ill women and girls.
They accused the district local government and the central government of violating the rights of the victims by failing to provide basic health services, social support services, including counselling and rehabilitation, as well as failure to prosecute the perpetrators of the vice.
Ms Elizabeth Ochola, a Women’s Probono Initiative programme officer, says the organisation had filed other cases in Kampala High Court against the government.
“All these cases are still ongoing in court, government should not fail to provide psychological support and community mental health support services in primary health care facilities in Uganda for women with mental disabilities who have suffered sexual abuse,” Ms Ochola says.
“Failure to provide such services makes it impossible for women with mental disabilities to live independently and recover from such abuses, especially in an era where such abuses grow in number every day,” she adds.
Research done by the organisation shows that Acholi region has a high number of mentally ill people because of the Lord’s Resistance Army 20-year insurgency that left many people traumatised.
Health experts say because of the trauma caused by the war, among other reasons, many people resorted to heavy consumption of alcohol and abuse of narcotic drugs, leading to an increase in mental illness in the region.
Mr Alfred Lulua Droti, the head of the mental health unit at Gulu Regional Referral Hospital, says alcohol accounts for the highest number of people with mental health problems, followed by marijuana.
“When we classify these mental illnesses, alcohol use disorder takes a bigger percentage. On average, we receive 100 outpatients for drug-abuse-related mental illness per week,” Mr Lulua says.
Statistics from the mental health unit show that the facility treats at least 500 patients every month, the majority of whom suffer drug- induced mental illness.
Ms Ochola accuses police of not doing enough to curb sexual abuse of mentally ill women and girls.
“While families and relatives are overwhelmed and do not know how to cope with the tremendous physical and emotional demands, the police, instead of recording and handling these cases, are biased and turn the victims away,” she says.
However, the Aswa River Region police spokesperson, Mr David Ongom Mudong, says most cases of sexual abuse against women and girls with mental illnesses are not reported to police.
“It is a common scenario that these women and girls are sexually abused by men who are mentally okay or men who are equally ill mentally but these cases go unreported,” Mr Ongom says.
“In Gulu City, for example, mentally ill women and girls are so many who roam everywhere, whether during the day or night and it is in the night that people take advantage of them to assault them sexually. Such cases die silently because no one reports them,” he adds.


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