A safe haven from sexual violence

Alice Achan (3rd right) at the award ceremony with Caritas Switzerland officials.

What you need to know:

Initially, a reception centre for victims of the conflict and sexual violence, Christian Counselling Fellowship provides a safe haven but also equips them with skills

Proscovia Akello, 21, is a resident of Agung Village, Todora Parish, Anaka Sub County in Nwoya district in Northern Uganda. In 2013 when she was 19, she sat for her Senior Four. When the results were released, she had not performed well. Around the same time, while in her vacation in 2014, she conceived in July while staying with her uncle in Gulu.

When her parents learnt of her pregnancy, they told her to stay home for two years as they pondered about her future. As sometimes fate has it, she, like any other girl from a not-doing well family, lost hope of going back to school as a young mother.

“My parents who were staying in Nwoya heard of some organisation that was sponsoring girls to go back to school. They secured a sponsorship and took me to Pader Girls School from where I repeated Senior Four. I also gave birth while at school in March 2015,” Akello recalls.
“At school, they had a day care centre. I would go for classes and during break and lunch times, I would attend to my baby. In the evening after classes, I would sleep with the baby until I completed Senior Four in 2015.”

Hope for the future
Pader Girls’ School offers both academic and tertiary education to many other girls like Akello. When she got her results and had performed well, she decided to enroll for a two-year course at Primary Teacher’s College in Gulu, still under the sponsorship of Christian Counselling Fellowship (CCF).

When she completes her course in 2017, she does not know her next step as that would be the end of the sponsorship programme.
“I wish the organisation could still sponsor me so that I pursue a diploma because I feel a certificate is not enough,” Akello says.
Like Akello, 23-year old Beatrice Achan also learned of the sponsorship programme of girls who had dropped out of school due to early pregnancy over a radio announcement.

The announcement was directed to teenage mothers informing them about how important their future could be and how they could benefit from the programme. By then, she had had a baby at 17.

“I was under the care of my maternal grandfather and he got annoyed when I conceived. He wanted to meet the man who had impregnanted me and know about him and his family but he went on a run.
Since 2009, I have never heard from him,” Achan recalls.
When she sat down with her grandfather, they agreed that she should go back to school. It was around that time when she was in Kotido that she listened to a radio announcement.

Without hesitation, she travelled to Pader and was admitted to Pader Girls’ School after undergoing vetting. She wasn’t paying school fees. She only paid Parent Teachers Association fares and school requirements.

When she reached Senior Two, she says she could not complete ordinary level because her grandfather fell ill and was operated more than eight times.

This, Achan says made her worried that he would pass on.
“I decided to switch to the tertiary section and started attending catering lessons in senior two so that if my grandfather passed on, I could fend and live life on my own,” she explains.

After attending a five months vocational training at Booma Hotel in Gulu in 2012, she was among the best students. When she told her grandfather about it, he advised her to rent her own place.
He also said that he may not live for long to take care of Achan. “I looked for a house and he paid three month’s rent and gave me foodstuffs,” she recalls.

Shortly after school, she started working at Megober Restaurant in Pader town that runs under CCF. She now works at CCF guest house in Pader district where she has been for four years. They offer services like accommodation, restaurant, hall hiring and sometimes outside catering.

Plight of young girls
In Uganda, when a girl of school going age gets pregnant, chances of them going back to school become slim. If they are already in school, they are sometimes expelled. When it comes to northern Uganda, the outbreak of the Lord’s Resistance Army war led to the abduction of young girls by rebel forces who used them as child soldiers to fight for them. Others were used as sex slaves by the rebels and as such, they missed out on school.

It is during difficult times that Achan and Akello met Alice Achan, the director and founder of CCF, an organisation that set up and runs Pader Girls School in Pader and Nwoya Girls’ Academy in Nwoya district. The role of CCF is to fundraise for the two schools and give them technical and financial support.

Alice Achan, 43, recalls that birth to the idea of Pader Girl’s Academy was triggered by one girl, Proscovia Adong, who was abducted by Lord’s Resistance Army rebels when she was 12 years old.
When the rebels attacked Adong’s village, Alice Achan recalls that her parents were killed and all her close relatives ran away. When Adong got the opportunity to leave the rebels camp, she had had a child from the rebel commanders. When she returned from rebels, she had no home, no family and lived on the streets of Kitgum town.

“I took her to my apartment until she gave birth to a baby girl. When she recovered, I supported her to learn tailoring as a new skill. This helped her become a tailor and started sewing dresses,” Alice Achan recalls, adding that this has since become Adong’s source of income to support her two children.

Achan shares that Adong’s story triggered a brilliant idea to help girls with similar violence backgrounds to attain education and vocational skills.

By the time Achan helped Adong, she had completed college with a social work certificate and was working.

“After making a critical consideration, I resigned from my job. With little savings, I opened up a community based reception centre which was later transformed into Pader Girls’ Academy,” she says.
The Girls’ academy takes care of educational needs of such girls and those who had been sexually abused by the rebels.

“Today, the rebels are no more but there is a huge challenge of post conflict sexual and gender based violence against girls and women. All this is because we have a dysfunctional community lacking a social safety network to protect women,” Achan highlights.

Still vulnerable
Achan explains that the situation of women in Uganda is increasingly becoming vulnerable because of things like rape and defilement. Besides that, the injustices against women like rape and defilement in Uganda, particularly among young girls, is high.

“We have good policies but sometimes the procedures followed make it hard for these girls to access justice. Since these girls are not able to access justice, let them be able to access basic services like education which is paramount. I believe that when they are educated, they can begin fighting for their own injustices,” Achan observes.
She shares a case of a then-Primary Seven girl who was raped, gave birth and her mother took her to Pader Girls’ School.

After the teacher who raped her had been on the run for two years, the student, who was in Senior Two, pursued the case herself after school awareness and sensitisation campaign.
She asked her mother, who then supported her to pursue the case, and the culprit was arrested in June 2015 and convicted to 35 years in prison.
Initially, Achan explains, CCF was a reception centre to provide counselling and family reunion to children who were returning from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war in early 2000.
When the LRA and the Ugandan government came to a peace agreement, LRA went to DR Congo and this meant that CCF was jobless yet there were facilities already in place.

“We transformed the facility into a secondary school and that led to the birth of Pader Girls’ Academy. It was founded as a transformation and rehabilitation centre of formally abducted children into a secondary school for the girls who were captured by the LRA. They couldn’t go to any public school because some of them were pregnant,” she highlights.

“Not all girls complete primary seven. Some drop out of school along the way when they don’t have primary seven results. Having a child does not have to stop a girl from continuing with school.
Some have responsibilities of looking after their babies and there is no way we can take them back to primary level to sit for Primary Seven.

Those who don’t have primary certificates are provided with vocational training and this gives them a chance to get employment opportunities within their own communities,” Achan concludes, explaining why the two schools provide both tertiary and education.
It however depends on the interest of the girl child to choose what they want to study.

It is against her works that Alice Achan was previously awarded by Caritas Switzerland for doing exceptional work for women and girls in rehabilitating them to school and their families.
Kathrin Wyss, the Caritas Switzerland delegate to Uganda and Rwanda explains that the Ugandan programmes mainly look at social justice, human rights and peace building by strengthening access to rights and services for vulnerable people where it partners with local organisations.

“In Uganda, we concentrated on the North where we partnered with Advance Afrika in socio-economic reintegration of youth ex-prisoners and CCF for the establishment of Nwoya Girls’ Academy,” Wyss says.
Caritas Switzerland also partnered with Justice and Peace Commission Gulu and Teso Initiative for Peace, Community Land Advocacy and Management Project (LAMP), a project that aims at strengthening customary land administration as a means of reducing conflict to enhance land access and tenure security for vulnerable people in the north.

Currently, Pader Girls’ School which has been operating for the last eight years, has 420 girls and Nwoya Girls’ Academy that was opened in March 2015 has 135 girls, 60 in secondary school and 85 in the tertiary section. The tertiary section teaches skills like tailoring and bakery.

Asked if she runs the two schools using her personal resources, Alice Achan shares that CCF depends a lot on foreign donations from agencies like CARITAS Switzerland, which, among other things supported land acquisition in Nwoya for the establishment of Nwoya Girl’s Academy, Uganda Fund that is UK based, Cross Roads Communication International, among others.

“From the funding that we receive, we use part of it to set up facilities like guest houses around the schools to generate income and also set up school farms. We also received support from the first lady to buy land and establish a school firm at Pader Girls School,” Achan shares, adding that the land is approximately 40 acres.