Although initially a teacher, Naomi Ayot Oyaro, chose to follow the humanitarian career path after witnessing the challenges of child-headed families and abuse among adolescents with no information about the changes in their bodies. Oyaro is the Programme Manager for Gender and Human Rights promotion at Action for Community Development (ACODEV).
After her graduation in 1996, she taught for two years but these were enough for her to understand where her calling was. According to her, “a teenager; boy or girl is fragile and any changes in the environment and their body impacts on them so much. However, these children have no one to speak to. We only wait to blame them when they make mistakes but never give them the support they need while growing up,” explains Oyaro.
Oyaro got into the practice of child protection in 1997 when she started teaching; first at Mengo Senior School and later Wisdom Senior Secondary School in Mukono. As a teacher, she realised that many children go through difficult situations at home including abuse both physical and sexual from relatives, strangers and family members.
She says, “Parents do not know this but some children prefer to spend their holidays at school because it is the only safe and peaceful place for them. The stories about the molestation and physical abuse they go through are so painful.”
When she left the teaching profession, Oyaro, the 36-year-old mother of one found solace in child protection. She joined Canada-Africa partnership on HIV/Aids in a campaign dubbed “Curb AIDS” as a volunteer, a project in northern and part of eastern Uganda aimed at improving the livelihoods of persons with HIV.
“The spread of the HIV was at its peak in the northern region because of the internally displaced people’s camps. It spread from hut to hut and so many children were left to fend for their siblings,” she recalls.
From a volunteer, she soared to a project officer and programme manager who helped the people affected with HIV to access treatment, food and income-generating activities.
In 2012, she joined Raising the Village, an organisation based in Kisoro and engaged in improving the livelihood of families through water and sanitation projects, agriculture and livestock.
She says, “The challenge was that after assessment, we found that pupils had no classrooms but when I told my bosses about it, they said their budget was restricted to agriculture so they could not give money towards education structures. I kept fighting my conscience because the community was not getting the satisfaction from our projects. Eventually, I left.”
In a child-rights convention held in Addis Ababa, Oyaro got in touch with officials from ACODEV because they had similar interest about child protection.
At ACODEV, it has been a good learning experience for Oyaro since 2014. To her, salary is good but nothing is more fulfilling than being able to impact on a life and changing people’s perceptions. In some cases in the Luwero Triangle, children with disability are a curse to the family and kept away from engaging in daily life activities.
“I visited a home in Nakaseke; but not even the village chairman knew that the family had a child with disability. When I asked to see the child with the disability, the mother brought out a naked 15-year-old girl, and put her on the dusty floor. She was tired of the child who was unable to walk and answered all nature’s calls where she sat. At one time, a neighbour told us she was left outside when it rained,” she narrates.
After a conversation with the mother, providing a wheel chair and pampers, at the next visit, the mother was happy, the child could visit the neighbours on her own and attend church with the help of her siblings.
Every week, there is a new case of defilement in the areas of Luwero, Nakasongola, Nakaseke, Kasese, Kyenjojo, Kibaale, Kabarole and parts of northern Uganda. Through her work, Oyaro has discovered that many people in the cattle keeping areas do not value education. Instead of attending school, the children spend time tending cattle, hunting or burning charcoal.
“The few children who go to school are at risk of sexual abuse because the schools are far from home and the (herdsmen) molest them on their way home, Oyaro says. The parents think of their children as a source of wealth especially from 12 to 15 years of age so the girls are betrothed through a payment of cows to the parents.”
Being able to rescue a child that was being married off is a big achievement for Oyaro. “Although the risk still remains because we do not stay with the children, we are sure the girl gets empowered and the boys at school are also getting involved in helping them continue with their education.”
She works with a network of community members trained to report any child rights violations. The team involves head teachers, police officers and some Village Health Team members who help identify cases and encourage the children stay in school.
“The cases of defilement in the past years were few but after the sensitisation in the community through community radios and police, more cases are being reported. We engage children in radio talk shows to expose the activities of parents in child marriages and the punishment they are liable to if they violate children’s rights.”
Oyaro went to St Paul Primary School, Tororo Girls School, and St Joseph’s Girls School Nsambya before joining Makerere University for a Bachelor of Arts in Education. She also holds a diploma and Master of Project Planning and Management from Uganda Management Institute.
What others say
I came to know about Ms Ayot about two years ago when I was pregnant. I had been defiled but was scared of telling my parents who were very angry with me. I was [meant] to stay home after giving birth but when she talked to them, I was able to go back to school because I really needed to be in school again.”
[teenage mother, name altered]) says,
Many children in this school walk for about 10 kilometres to come to school so they are at risk of defilement. Their parents also don’t provide for the scholastic materials and since there is no secondary school within this area, both the parents and children and parents lose hope for the future. Through ACODEV however, some of the children have learnt about their rights.”
Timothy Kizito, headmaster at Kiiso Primary School in Luwero, says,