By Daniel Wallis
GULU, Uganda, June 15 (Reuters) - Rape, sexual attacks and child abuse are common in northern Uganda's biggest refugee camp, where tens of thousands of people shelter from 19 years of war, the United Nations children's agency said on Wednesday.
Some 1.6 million northerners have been uprooted by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebellion, triggering a crisis aid workers have called the world's worst neglected emergency.
The refugees live in squalid, sprawling settlements where overcrowding, despair and a "culture of silence" allow sexual violence to thrive, especially against children, a study by UNICEF and local officials published on Wednesday said.
"Tackling sexual and gender-based violence, particularly against children, means knowing when a child is being subjected to violence and knowing how to respond so the child will have a reliable system of help to turn to," UNICEF country representative Martin Mogwanja said.
Pabbo, the largest of the camps in northern Uganda, is home to about 67,000 Ugandans, of whom more than 70 percent are women and children.
Rape is the most common form of violence there, but its stigma means few cases are reported and its extent is probably far greater than recorded, the study said.
It found girls aged 13 to 17 were most likely to suffer sexual violence, followed by older women, then children aged four to nine. Attacks were carried out by relatives, strangers and Ugandan government troops, the report said.
Many victims suffer severe mental trauma and sickness including HIV/AIDS, the study said, but their treatment is hobbled by a lack of qualified medical staff and supplies and the absence of any government programmes to tackle the violence.
CULTURE OF SILENCE
The report included cases like a young man who committed suicide in Pabbo after learning he had raped his mother and of rape being used as a weapon in family feuds.
It said a "culture of silence" shrouded the violence, men did not see marital rape as a crime, and that victims of sex attacks, incest and child abuse were often labelled "losers".
Poverty, desperate living conditions, lack of security and alcohol abuse were all to blame, the report said.
Pabbo, about 20 km (12 miles) northwest of Gulu town, is just one of scores of camps sheltering more than 90 percent of the population in the north's three most insecure districts.
Residents survive on aid agency handouts because the surrounding countryside remains too dangerous to cultivate.
Bands of LRA fighters notorious for mutilating survivors and abducting thousands of children roam the forests and hills every night, evading army patrols to hunt for food and victims.
Both sides have both stepped up attacks this year, and many in the region fear the fighting is likely to grind on after landmark peace talks stalled in February.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet