It is not uncommon for communities in the Karamoja region in Uganda to reach amicable resolutions to child rights violations between the adult parties involved. This not only lacks a child-centred protection approach, but it often also conceals child rights violations, normalising and perpetuating child trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. With this in mind, government officials, child protection organisations, community members and survivors have been brought together by the Community Action project for sub-county-specific case conferences to discuss cases of child trafficking and sexual exploitation of children (CT & SEC) that have happened within their respective communities.
In Karamoja, sexual exploitation and abuse are commonly accepted. For example, in cases of courtship rape¹ it is common that families of the victim and the perpetrator mutually and amicably agree on a resolution. As a result of this, many cases of child abuse and exploitation go unreported or if reported are not further pursued because parents fear repercussions that might be associated with reporting the crime. From community dialogues it was noted that some caregivers are contributing greatly to CT & SEC and actually might be benefiting from it.
Case conferences are designed to provide a platform and opportunity for community members to open up about their knowledge of instances of exploitation (cases) in the presence of their local leaders. The goal of case conference meetings is to develop a community-centered strategy with all stakeholders who are involved in providing a protective shield for children. The conferences provide a safe space for community members to share and learn alongside duty bearers. Case conferences are aimed at responding to cases that have been hidden or ended prematurely without legal action or follow-up, in order to offer appropriate support to survivors of CT & SEC.
The Community Action project facilitated case conferences in Lorengecora, Lokopo, Matany and Lopeei Sub Counties in Napak District in the Karamoja Region, Uganda from 28 April - 1 May 2021. In total, 30 children and 236 adult community members participated in the conference meetings, including caregivers and survivors. Other notable stakeholders who contributed to the discussions included the District Probation and Social Welfare Officer, the District Child and Family Protection Unit, Community Development Officers, Village Local Council 1 (LC1), Parish Chiefs, Sub County Child and Family Units, and teachers.
The meetings provided a forum for survivors of CT and SEC and those familiar with cases to share their experiences and discuss how the system has handled their cases. It also provided a platform for learning and linking the survivors to appropriate services, and offered a protective shield for sustainable reintegration. While sharing of experiences was voluntary, the project ensured that a caseworker was present at each case conference meeting to offer support if needed. Cases newly identified during these sessions were referred to a child protection champion in the survivor’s respective village, who works closely with the project staff to ensure support continues following the conference.
In addition to examining real-life case scenarios, the case conferences also provided the opportunity for participants to discuss trends and other key elements that they have found to be linked to exploitation. For example, one of the discussions centred on the high temporal school dropout rate that has persisted for years and how this has made children more vulnerable. Research commissioned by GFEMS in 2021 revealed that around 38% of children in Napak District have never been to school. Moreover, case conference participants highlighted that vulnerabilities also exist for children who do go to school as many attend only the last of three terms, just enough to advance to the next class. When not in school, children often migrate to business areas like Teso, Kenya, Busia, Mbale and Kampala to make ends meet and support their families, a trend that parents, children and youth have normalised.
Ultimately, case conferences enabled open communication and cross-learning between different stakeholder groups. Child protection organisations and district stakeholders gained valuable knowledge and were able to take immediate action. Significant outcomes include:
Case conferences also yielded recommendations for supporting children at risk of trafficking, including:
Speaking about this forum, a LC1 chairperson from Lopeei said, “This should be an ongoing practice because it makes people open up about the silent cases in the community.”
The case conference method proved to have a positive impact on how the community perceives and handles cases of CT & SEC. With a victim-centred approach, collaborative efforts in case management and decision making, CT & SEC cases were unveiled and appropriate support given to those affected. Case conferences may also promote positive behaviour change among community members, increasing the likelihood of reporting cases and lessening the stigma associated with CT & SEC. The case conference method is easily replicable and scalable to ensure positive change in other communities too.
This case story was made possible through support provided by the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery under a grant from the U.S. Department of State. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of GFEMS or the U.S. Department of State.