Four years ago today — International Day of the Girl Child, October 11, 2018 — is what comes to mind for me as I prepare to share my story.
As a now 19-year-old young woman, who has seen a lot and lived through prior and current stages of the movement to improve safety, equality, and inclusion for girls globally, I have a unique perspective.
MY LAST 19 YEARS
I was born in Kampala, Uganda, to an African Muslim family of five children, and I was the only girl and the last born. As a girl I was deprived of education, my voice was not considered as a girl amongst boys, and I was always discriminated against, neglected, and abused by my family, especially my brother.
My father abandoned us when I was very young, and the boys became the head of the house. My community was grooming me to become someone’s wife by forcing me to undergo female genital mutilation just because I was a Muganda girl, and the Baganda tribe required that of all the girls of that tribe.
At 13 years of age, my brothers told me that I must marry a man old enough to be my grandfather because the climate crisis resulted in severe crop shortages, and we were poor and hungry. I did not want this, as any child would not. I wanted to become educated and have a meaningful future. I refused to be married, so I grew food for my family through finding seeds in local garbage and planting them in pots that littered the area as pollution. This allowed me to get on with my life. I thought.
I received an opportunity through a Christian missionary organization — Christian Family Helpers — to attend a school. I was required to convert to Christianity, change my name to what they chose for me, and attend a boarding school. It was thereafter connected to an organization that claimed to protect and save girls and women from prostitution. Little did I know that I was falling from the pan into the fire, because I was escaping child marriage only to enter a life of forced child labor, starvation, beatings, sexual harassment and fending myself off from rapists within the school with little to no chance of entering a class to study what I now understand was a poor education taught by “graduates” of the high school who were children themselves.
I am now 19 years old and have experienced all forms of violence, even with those organizations that claim to protect girls. This made me realize that the root cause of all violence against women and children are institutions that claim publicly to protect, yet they are either actively hurting us or hiding the abuses happening behind closed doors.
MY 2018 TRIP TO THE UN FOR THE GIRL CHILD
In 2018, at the age of 15, I was one of two Ugandan delegates chosen through Plan International to participate in a United Nations girls’ “take over” of important UN offices. This was seen as an emblematic way to demonstrate and showcase girl empowerment, inclusion, and equity.
I traveled to the UN headquarters in New York City, USA. There were almost 400 global girls who participated in this commemoration of the International Day of the Girl Child. We took over the Office of Innovation, which was headed by Ms. Cynthia Mcfrey. In the large, round Assembly Hall, I absorbed the faces and expressions of all the girls there. Wow! It was overwhelming!
Many other participants were there, from delegates to representatives from NGOs, the business community, and religious and cultural institutions. They raised their arms up high to pledge support for girls. They promised commitment, money and resources, as well as protection for girls. The girls were cheering — for each other!
From that day forward, I kept my eye on the commitments that were made that week. I wanted to see how and when they would come to fulfillment. I was, after all, one of the girls they were pledging to support and protect.
MY HOPELESS REALIZATION OF HARMFUL INSTITUTIONS
Unfortunately, what I did not know that day was that many of these organizations were putting on a good show. They were talking the talk, but not, sadly, planning to walk that talk. Some perhaps knew then and there that they were not going to create positive change. The professionals in the room — those with power — knew what compromises were required to make change for the better for girls who suffered, like me.
Basically, though, I came to understand that it all amounted to fake news. After returning from my two-week adventure at the UN, my everyday experience sharply contrasted with the vision that these groups pledged to bring about, including in my local community. The NGOs, schools, cultural institutions, and religious groups where I was purportedly being nurtured and prepared for an empowered future were not nurturing me nor even protecting me. Far from it, actually. They were, in fact, harming me. The claims they were making to the world of protecting, educating, and nurturing me and girls like me — at the UN headquarters, at conventions, at any public speaking event, and on social media — were false.
In some ways, I regretted attending the meeting. I left the UN event with a sense of hope, feeling there was a light at the end of the long tunnel of hardships I had endured since birth because I personally experienced the power of girls’ voices from around the world. I had learned that there was an alternative future for us who were treated as commodities. I was emboldened by exchanges with so many girls and so many groups. I gained a lot of knowledge and awareness of our common plight.
But when I returned, the bright hope I felt was soon gone, as I continued to witness and endured abuses of the very organization that claimed to protect and empower me and my girl peers. On one occasion, in 2020, the head of the organization looked on as her colleague, the missionary school director, beat one of my fellow girl students in the head with a cane. Nothing was done. I spoke up! I took one look at the school I was forced to return to and said “this is wrong!”. I had found my voice. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being violated left and right, including at the boarding school that held me and the organization that claimed to protect me and other girls.
Rather than supporting me, the organization accused me of turning against the school. This is the story of so many girls and women victims of abuse — we are made out to be the wrongdoers.
According to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as children, we were supposed to enjoy our childhood, and not be forced to work like slaves and denied education. We were supposed to be fed, not punished with starvation. We were supposed to feel freedom, not be locked up in solitary confinement. We were supposed to be protected, not forced to endure rape, and be turned over to tribal elders who required genital mutilation and then forced marriage.
All the while, these figureheads bask in international accolades for all they have done to further the cause of girls worldwide. This false front that the organization puts out not only saddens me, it also leaves so many girls trapped. I was asked to be part of the cover-up.
I am aware that this situation is ongoing. This organization continues to operate in this way, sharing false information on social media and world stages. I am particularly aware that it is an additional violation of girls’ rights that they might be helped by actual do-gooder organizations, but for the fact that many girls are purportedly “being helped” by harmful groups that I have just described. They are trapped, and it is clear that many do not know the degree to which help is needed. Girls are misled into believing that all is well and the abuses are normalized. It’s “cultural”. These girls are being left so vulnerable that they have no way out.
So, where am I today? I am an intern for Heirs To Our Ocean (H2OO) living and learning with the founding family. I could not ask for a kinder and more loving family to have come across my path. I am together with so many “sisters” — millions from around the world and two I now live with here at my new home — along with so many youth of H2OO of all genders who are my nurturing community. Together, we are gaining skills to address social and environmental justice issues around the world, such as those outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I am now a part of a family of committed empathetic leaders dedicated to spreading the power of empathy. This year, the trauma of my past is coming out into the open, getting some air. I am healing. Now that I have true support and care, I am so much stronger, safer, and ready and able to work towards securing social justice for the Girl Child around the world.
It is saddening that such atrocities are increasingly happening to girls, but l am happy to raise awareness of this issue of fraudulent claims and facades, further harming the girls they are supposedly protecting.
If leaders of religious groups and NGOs claiming to be committed to the well-being of girls are actually harming and harassing girls, and they receive a stream of funding and global awards and accolades, then when will we ever be safe and free from violence and fear?
If the people claiming to protect us witness violence upon us yet neither do nor say anything or expose us to violent people, societal norms and traditions, then they are not protecting us.
Until we come to understand the realities of how institutions — schools, religious groups, and NGOs — work, really work, we still have a long way to go to protect girls, children, and women from horrific abuses. Unfortunately, due to “politics” and a society’s claims culture, addressing this fraud, this atrocity, is not common. But it must become so if we are actually to be protected.
If one “leads” and no one follows, then one has simply taken a meaningless walk. So please let’s not just talk about the protection of girls, children, and women. Let’s act on what we say and be the justice in the world that we claim to be. Then we will have led.
We all have a responsibility here, including bystanders, to lift the carpet. Please, get uncomfortable for the sake of the Girl Child and ask questions, conduct an investigation, and find out. We need all the help we can get — from everyone.