Juliet (Not her real name) grew up believing that home is the safest and most loving place. Her viewpoint changed drastically when she watched her stepfather sexually assault her cousin.
“My step-father raped my cousin, he attempted to rape my little sister,” she said.
The 16-year-old was terrified. She begged her mother to allow her go live with her grandmother.
Her wish was granted but her grandmother died, so Julia had to return home. She did, but also made up her mind to speak up.
She told her mother that the man she called her husband was a rapist and questioned why she couldn’t just walk away from him. Juliet’s mother was not pleased with the confrontation and accusation against her husband.
“She gripped me firmly, beat my legs, my head, everywhere,” recalls Juliet. “There was so much anger in her eyes, I thought that she was going to kill me.”
Juliet ran away from home. Her mother and step father searched for Julia for days before discovering her in a neighboring village.
Locked up for speaking up
In February 2018, her parents took her to Kampiringisa National Rehabilitation Centre – a juvenile prison in Kampala.
“They claimed that I had become a difficult child to deal with and a danger to society,” Juliet says.
Juliet had heard rumors about children getting tortured Kampiringisa and she dreaded going there.
“…but it is not as bad as I had thought,” she says.
At the juvenile centre, teenagers undertake vocational education courses, something Juliet found useful.
“I am in the catering class. The dormitories are clean, I have made some friends,” she says.
Even with the conditions at Kampiringisa not being as bad, Julia feels she could be doing something much better to improve her life.
“I feel like I am wasting time here. Why did they not listen to me?” she asks, rather rhetorically.
Kampiringisa is supposed to be a place for juveniles in conflict with the law. They are supposed to go through court processes before getting confined there. However, Julia is at the detention facility without going through court.
I asked the officer who had been quietly listening in to our conversation as mandated by the rules of the Centre as why Julia was at Kampiringisa. He instead turned to Julia and asked who received her when she was brought to the facility.
“Miss Prisca,” Juliet replied.
“That was an intern,” the officer said, acting surprised. “That is not right, I will follow up this case,” said added.
And just like that, Juliet was handed a nine-month detention time at the centre by an intern who probably had no sufficient experience or knowledge about how things are done.
“I never appeared in court, the officers at the rehabilitation home only listened to my parents. My freedom was taken away,” Julia says.
She is eager to leave Kampirigisa. “I can’t wait for November to get out and resume school.”
Children and Family Courts are established by the Children Act and have the jurisdiction to hear and determine most criminal charges against children except capital ones. Three levels of court can administrate juvenile justice; local councils, the children and family courts, and the High Court.
A child can apply for bail, but if court feels that the child won’t be safe outside a juvenile centre, they can only be held for a maximum period of three months for capital offences and one month for petty offences.
What the future holds
Come November, where will Juliet go? Is home an option?
“Never, I cannot go back to that place. I will go to my uncle’s place. I know that he will receive me because that is the only safe place for me,” she says.
Three weeks after the interview, I visited Julia at the rehabilitation center. Her case had not been followed up as the officer had promised.
The question remains on how many children like Juliet are in Juvenile courts without being taken through the legal process? Attempts to get a comment from the ministry of Gender have so far proven to be futile.