It is a day 16-year-old Fatia Naigaga will never forget. How could she when it’s the day she became the Executive Director of Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), even if it was just for two hours?
It was symbolic, yes, but she said in her speech that the symbolism had inspired her to dream of one day holding down a position that big in real life. And, as Napoleon Hill famously said, whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.
In commemoration of the International Day of the Girl Child, Ms Naigaga, a student of Kamuli Progressive College, took charge of Uganda Communications Commission as Executive Director. She occupied the ED’s seat, addressed the senior management of the Government agency, and interacted with staff members.
Celebrated annually on October 11, the International Day of the Girl Child seeks to raise awareness about the issues facing girls around the world.
Plan International, a development and humanitarian organisation that advances children’s rights and equality for girls, teamed up with UCC this year to raise awareness about the harassment and abuse that girls and young women endure online, in line with this year’s theme, “Girls Free To Be Online”.
“Although it is just symbolic, I feel the courage; I feel inspired that one time I will sit in such a chair, not as symbolic but as someone with real power to make a difference in the lives of girls,” Naigaga said.
The youngster, who was accompanied by three friends and some Plan International staff, noted that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has accelerated the online migration, girls have been exposed to online harassment and violence more than ever.
Stalked, sexually harassed, intimidated, cyber-bullied and blackmailed on social media, Naigaga said such maltreatment prevents girls from freely engaging on social media platforms to express their views and be part of meaningful conversations and development processes.
On what is being done to make online spaces safer for girls, Ag. Executive Director Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo said UCC’s mantra is “Communications for All”, which underlines the Commission’s commitment to leave no one behind, including girls.
Ms Kaggwa Sewankambo also spoke of programmes that the Commission has explicitly designed targeting the girl child, such as the Girls in ICT initiative, which aims to support and position girls to enjoy the fruits that accrue from the responsible use of ICTs.
The ED further observed that what constitutes a crime in the real world is a crime in cyberspace, and is therefore punishable under the existing legal regime, citing the Computer Misuse Act and Anti Pornography Act as two of the legal instruments in place to protect girls online.
She added, however, that it’s everyone’s responsibility, not just the Government, regulators or law enforcement organs, to ensure that we have a safer internet space.
Asked by Naigaga how she got to where she is, being a woman, the ED described UCC as a very gender-neutral organisation in terms of opportunities. It is about competencies, she advised, and showing what one can do, rather than feeling that ‘because I am a woman I can’t do it.’
“Your attitude shapes your altitude,” the ED added.
Turning to the young ED, Ms Kaggwa Sewankambo said she had been impressed by her charisma and confidence, adding that with the right attitude she would go far.
Naigaga, on her part, expressed gratitude that she had been able to represent and give a voice to millions of girls like her who didn’t get an opportunity like she did.
“They shouldn’t be harassed, they shouldn’t be intimidated, they should be listened to,” she pleaded, calling on Ugandans to take a stand against harassment of girls online. “Let’s just not wish but act.”
The Plan International team was led by Country Director Iveta Ouvry who decried the COVID-19 inspired increase in the abuse of girls online, which she said limits their ability to learn to express their views and shape the public space.
“As societies are tested and adapt, it is crucial that we build a different kind of world for girls. Girls in all their diversity need to know that when they are abused and threatened online, they can report it. That they will be listened to. That action will be taken, and that perpetrators will be held to account,” she said.
A survey conducted by Plan International involving 14,000 girls across 22 countries found that online harassment takes a profound toll on their confidence and well being, with 39% of those surveyed saying it lowers self-esteem, 38% saying it creates mental and emotional stress and 18% saying it can cause problems at school.
On the other hand, the first national survey on Ugandan children online, which was commissioned by UCC in December 2019, found that less than half of the children that used the internet (44.6%) knew how to behave in the event of a dicey situation online.