Uganda: New insights to support girls in conflict with the law

by Elizabeth Harrop

6 December 2016

In Northern Uganda, prolonged poverty and the impact of civil conflict continues to affect young people, forcing them to survive in a subsistence environment with little to no prospect of gaining employment. Latest figures from the Government of Uganda show that the incidence of poverty remains highest in the Northern region, with 43.7% living below the Poverty line compared to 4.7% in the Central region.

The NGO Chance for Childhood has been documenting the links between poverty and the likelihood of coming into conflict with the law in the region since 2013, as well as looking at opportunities to promote restorative justice arrangements that address the root causes of committing petty crime. In 2015, Chance for Childhood launched its four-year Right2Change initiative to help Children in Conflict with the Law (CICL) access alternatives to detention, and pilots a model of community-based structured diversion.

Over time, it has become apparent that girls can face different reasons for coming into conflict with the law, and different vulnerabilities have a greater impact on girls than on their boy peers in this context. Girls also experience the criminal and community justice systems differently.

Girls make up almost 10% of the population of CICL in Uganda. However, the criminal justice system in Uganda is also used for the ‘safe custody’ of girls and girls may be detained simply because they are victims of crime, for example of forced marriages, child trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Other forms of discrimination encountered by girls in the criminal justice system include blaming the victim for her own rape, or being sexually assaulted by the Police when reporting a crime.

International legal frameworks demand that juvenile justice systems should be directed at rehabilitation and reintegration. These legal frameworks also place emphasis on the unique risks and vulnerabilities faced by girls and the significance of diversion programmes, so that children are not processed through (and stigamtised by) the criminal justice system.

A criminal response to welfare needs

A key finding affecting CICL of both sexes is the misallocation of state resources, which are used to criminalise instead of protect vulnerable children. If funding and services were instead used in a more humane and just way, then the rights violations children suffer, which can lead to their social exclusion and vulnerability to criminality, could be redressed and a child’s pathway into coming into conflict with the law could be arrested. However, the present situation means that the needs of a child in conflict with the law remain unmet, and the child is instead stigmatised as a criminal, and blamed for the wider failure of society and the government, with all its consequences.

The UN Committee on the Right of the Child notes in General Comment No. 10 (2007) that “criminal codes contain provisions criminalizing behavioural problems of children, such as vagrancy, truancy, runaways and other acts, which often are the result of psychological or socio-economic problems. It is particularly a matter of concern that girls and street children are often victims of this criminalization”.

The criminalisation of children and young people with welfare needs and the reliance on imprisonment is unable to address the causes of offending. The tragedy is one for the individual child as well as society. For example, in England, better cooperation between courts and Youth Offending Teams and increased diversion from courts, was found capable of reducing imprisonment and delivering total savings of over £60 million.

Many studies worldwide cite the harsher treatment of women and girls in the criminal justice system due to contravening gender norms. This includes for non-violent crime such as status offenses and acts such as theft and prostitution. Status offences (such as truancy, running away from home, violating curfew laws or possessing alcohol or tobacco) are often used against girls to control their behaviour. Meanwhile, girls who have turned to sex work as a survival strategy or are victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation are prosecuted, instead of the adults who are exploiting them.

There are calls for status offences to be identified as welfare issues, for these offences to be abolished and the conduct addressed through child protection mechanisms.

Risk factors

Studies on the background characteristics of women in the justice system in Uganda could not be found. However, a history of trauma is almost universal among incarcerated adults in the USA (over 85%). Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is four to 10 times more prevalent among incarcerated women than in community samples.

Another study in the USA found that crimes that women are convicted for “are closely related to the structural situation of women in this society. The characteristics are histories of abuse, of being responsible for children, and being limited to low skill/low income jobs. Incarcerated women grew up in abusive families to a much higher extent than men and a majority of them had experienced domestic violence… as single parents with usually low skills it is for most difficult or impossible to support their children”.

Girls may be susceptible to peer pressure in different ways to boys. Girls experience more emotional stress from problem relationships because they are socialised to focus on relationships. This is particularly true in adolescence when relationship conflict can result in feelings of rejection and depression in girls. The resulting insecurity “can lead girls to associate with antisocial peers and romantic partners, increasing their vulnerability to delinquent behaviours”.


For both boys and girls in Uganda, theft and other crimes can be a response to poverty. One study revealed that the majority of offences committed by children and young people in Uganda are related to their very survival and many had been forced to steal in order to eat.

Young people aged 18-30 account for 64% of the total unemployed population in Uganda. The unemployment rate is higher among the better educated and among young women. However, even where youth are employed, 60% of paid young employees take home less than the average monthly wages/salaries. The disparity in median monthly wages by gender is significant at Shs 66,000 (USD $20) for females and Shs 132,000 (USD $40) for males.

Criminalisation as a result of poverty or other factors further prohibits livelihood options and children are caught in a vicious cycle. Young people in Uganda said they are denied jobs after being released from prison because they lack skills and are burdened by social stigma.

In addition to being a push factor in causing criminality, poverty can also negatively affect children’s experiences from within the criminal justice system. Where police corruption is prevalent and bribes are needed, for example for early release from detention, juveniles may be unable to pay and secure their freedom.

A lack of livelihood options mean many young women resort to sex work and subsequently become more vulnerable to HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases, to abuse, and to coming into contact with the law.

A major issue affecting young women and financial sustainability is access to land. Lack of land ownership and economic insecurity increases the dependence on and subordination to men, and makes women and girls vulnerable to the high rates of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and to other abuses such as child marriage, which in turn impact a girl’s right to education and her future prospects.

Interrelated vulnerabilities

Various vulnerabilities cause children to abandon their childhood and seek coping strategies to ensure their survival. Or children are forced into deplorable situations of abuse and neglect, for example by being trafficked for sexual exploitation. The common root of this lack of agency and choice in a child’s life and the subsequent violation of their human rights is vulnerability caused by a range of factors – many of which coexist and are interrelated. For example substance abuse to cope with abuse and hunger; children in street situations linked to poverty, witchcraft accusations or conflict at home; SGBV both resulting from child marriage and causing it, when a girl feels that it is her only option for escape from an untenable home life.

While girls in Uganda are generally vulnerable to human rights abuses due to gender inequality, specific groups of girls are more greatly affected. These include girls with disabilities, girls in conflict affected areas, girls who are out of school, girls subject to child marriage, child mothers, orphans, girls subject to defilement and SGBV, girls affected by HIV/AIDS, girls who have been trafficked for exploitation, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or intersex (LGBTI) children, and girls in street situations. Many of these vulnerabilities co-exist for an individual child, and vastly diminish the range of available coping strategies and livelihood options. Such girls are therefore pushed further along a path which forces them into conflict with the law (such as through sex work).

The majority of children in case studies in a global Save the Children study on CICL had dropped out of school, either to work to support their families or themselves, or because their parents were unable to pay the costs of their education. A lack of education may be the result of other vulnerabilities/abuses (e.g. child marriage, children in street situations) and may lead to further forms of vulnerability/abuse (illiteracy, lack of access to higher education).

Orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) in Uganda are more likely to engage in child labour.. However, many such children end up resorting to theft and street begging. A child’s coping strategies and livelihood options on the street are likely to result in coming into conflict with the law as a child is forced to “choose” between stealing and going hungry; having sex with a policeman or being arrested.

Children and girls in detention

Girls in custody are more likely to self-harm than boys. International guidelines note that girls placed in an institution deserve special attention as to their personal needs, and that they are especially vulnerable due to their small numbers as well as their gender, including to abuse from officials such as the police.

According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, of the 42,000 individuals in prison in 2014, 23,000 are on remand awaiting trial (55%). Women and girls may be disproportionately given pre-trail detention as most female offenders have a low income and may find it hard to provide a financial guarantee, or to evidence secure employment or secure accommodation. Female pre-trial detainees are more likely than their male counterparts to be held with convicted prisoners because there are fewer facilities for detaining women.

Incarceration of children is proven to be ineffective. In the UK, 72% of children released from custody go on to re-offend within one year. In France, recidivism figures rise to 90% for children incarcerated a second time.

Girls’ treatment within the community justice system

UN agencies note a ”justice vacuum” in Uganda caused by inaccessibility of the formal justice system in much of the country. Informal justice mechanisms have filled a large space in this vacuum and can therefore be capitalised on as existing systems for encouraging diversion and other community responses to juvenile offending.

However, informal justice systems, especially custom and religious-based, are likely to uphold rather than to challenge the harmful norms and values of the society around them, including attitudes and patterns of discrimination. It is important that rape and sexual violence should not be dealt with by community justice systems, but referred to ordinary courts.

Girls may receive less support in the community or family, and be less willing to ask for help. In the UK, girls are less likely than boys to have the support of their family, leaving them isolated or dependant on the support of the local authority, their “corporate parent”. In addition, due to a lack of sufficient facilities for girls, their placement a significant distance from a child’s home area decreases the chances of maintaining family and community links.


A common theme for girls in conflict with the law, is their limited choices and survival strategies. Expanding the choices available to a child is therefore “the next logical step”. As there may be fewer choices available to girls than boys, particular efforts should be made to promote gender equality in programming. This may include supporting a girl’s choice to remain in education during and after a teenage pregnancy, or for the perpetrator of sexual violence in the home to be forced to leave through the application of the rule of law, instead of the girl child running away or becoming dependent on another abusive relationship as a way out. A key point is that girls and boys need to be empowered to make different and expanded choices made available to them, rather than having these choices made for them.

Meanwhile research on the protective factors associated with females and offending, identifies factors such as high self-esteem, assertiveness, healthy lifestyles, supportive and enduring relationships with families and peers, access to services, positive female role models, and alternative education provision. Particularly important for girls is recognising the significance of relational ties for girls’ development. The fostering of positive relationships, including with family members, peers, romantic partners, therapists, and juvenile justice professionals, can play a significant role in helping girls heal from trauma and resist delinquency.

Research on some of the most vulnerable young people in Uganda in conflict affected areas urges that development efforts should acknowledge their significant potential and seek to create substantive roles for youth to engage in peace-building and civic activities, allowing them to build confidence, leadership skills, and empowerment.

Examples of best practice in diversion include the Uganda Fit Persons model which provides community support for children who have either been diverted, given a community sentence or reintegrated into their families and communities. Fit Persons are trained and respected individuals who support and follow the child in their reintegration process. In cases where families are unable or unwilling to be a guarantor for the child, the Fit Person is able to step in and even provide temporary foster care while searching for longer-term care options.

The model recognises the significance of care and protection issues: that diversion and community-based alternatives need to be provided to children facing care issues; and that addressing care and protection issues is integral to solutions for children who have come into conflict with the law.

An emphasis on diversion is prevalent within the juvenile justice sector worldwide, and awareness is raising on the issue in Uganda, with the drafting of National Diversion Guidelines for Juvenile Justice. However, diversionary measures can only be successful when part of a holistic system that addresses all the needs and vulnerabilities of the girl (and boy) child including a continuum of care and protection interventions that address multiple challenges and risks before a child comes into conflict with the law, and expanding the choices available to the child.

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Liberty & Humanity

For further information: Girls in conflict with the law in Uganda: The experiences and needs of girls before, during and after contact with the criminal and informal justice systems by Elizabeth Harrop for Chance for Childhood, November 2016

The above literature review formed the basis of the report Understanding factors of offending amongst girls in conflict with the law: Recommendations from Northern Uganda’s first community-based diversion programme (below). This supplemented the literature review with case studies, focus group discussions and structured interviews with Chance for Childhood’s Right 2 Change project beneficiaries and stakeholders in Uganda, including frontline workers such as magistrates and police officers.