By Tonny Onyulo, Catholic News Service
KAMPALA, Uganda (CNS) — For the last decade, Florence Nsangi thought of committing suicide after her stepfather raped her when she was 16. Nsangi, now 27, tearfully explained the incident.
She said her stepfather warned her of serious consequences if she dared to share the information with anyone in their community in Masaka, about 80 miles southwest of Kampala.
The incident occurred at night when her mother attended a relative’s funeral. “When I told my mother about the incident, she told me I should not tell anyone because it would bring shame to the family. I felt very low. I wish I were not born into this world.”
Nsangi, who asked that Catholic News Service not use her real name, remained at home for a year before escaping and taking refuge at a friend’s house, where she abused drugs for five years to escape the trauma. Then one of her friends shared her story with some local Catholic leaders.
“A priest, a nun and a catechist approached me during their counseling sessions early this year and held me in their arms,” Nsangi said. “After they talked and embraced me, I cried loudly and spoke out about what had happened to me. They told me God loves me and I should forgive myself and live again.”
Nsangi is among thousands of women and men in the East African nation of more than 45 million people who have struggled or are struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems caused by armed violence and sexual violence.
Records from the 2016 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey show that 22% of women aged 15-49 in the nation had experienced sexual violence. The report said up to 13% of women aged 15-49 are experiencing sexual violence yearly. The data showed that more than 1 in every five women aged 15-24 has experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.
These statistics prompted the Masaka Diocese to open a counseling and psychosocial support center.
The facility, the Centre for Human and Social Development, provides counseling to individuals, groups, couples, family, victims of sexual or domestic violence, people who have lost their loved ones, drug addicts, and people suffering from depression, stress and anxiety.
“We realized that these were the common problems affecting our people, and we wanted to assist them by restoring their hope and transforming their lives,” said Masaka Bishop Serverus Jjumba, explaining that the rehabilitation center accepts all depressed people across the country regardless of their religion, and at no cost.
“I want to advise people who are stressed and traumatized by different life challenges to seek help at our center. People should not stay silent and depressed. They should speak out and forgive themselves.”
Bishop Jjumba said the church has been carrying out awareness in diocesan communities to sensitize the people about sexual and domestic violence, child abuse, drug abuse and other human rights cases, and how victims could seek help at the center.
“We want people to know how to deal with the problems they go through every day,” he said, noting that they also employed medical doctors to assist them in case an emergency arose. “People should be aware that mental health problems are common, especially when people have been sexually and physically abused, addicted to drugs and had a family breakup. So they should not be ashamed. They should seek help.”
Joseph Lubega, mental health and psychosocial support officer in Masaka, said many people had suffered in silence for a long time and others ended up committing suicide or harming their families because of the mental health problems.
“Most people I have come across with mental health issues suffer from depression and anxiety,” said Lubega, who added that many people suffer in silence. “Therefore, the center offers an opportunity for people to seek help if they are going through life challenges and trauma.”
Sister Noeline Namusoke, a member of the Daughters of Mary Sisters, said that, apart from managing the center, the team also offers guidance and counseling sessions to the communities and patients at various health care centers. She said the church was providing emotional and financial support to the victims of violence so that they could start life again.
“The center will help a lot of people regain hope and start life afresh. We have professionals, including medical doctors, who will help us achieve that goal,” she said.
Faith Nakuya, a primary teacher in Masaka, said the center would help many teens “heal and regain their lives.”
“We have many teen girls who are pregnant while others are taking care of their babies. They have dropped out of school and are very traumatized and depressed. Because of the stigma, they cannot come out of their homes,” she said.