To the teenage mothers and victims of gender-based violence at Christian Counselling Fellowship (CCF), in Pader, Alice Achan is not just a dedicated teacher and mother, but a counsellor and confidante.
To women who were formerly in captivity, she is a heroine and a role model. Sharon Apiyo, a graduate nurse, now practising maternal child health care, was adopted by Achan in 2012, after she dropped out of school. Her peasant parents could not raise money to further her studies once she completed Senior Six.
“My goal is to help people forget the things they went through so that they can start a new life. We do this through counselling, guidance and acquisition of life skills, to support them to become independent,” says Achan.
When her brother left Gulu for Jinja District in 1988, away from the LRA conflict, Achan was taken to a boarding school for O-Level. On a fateful night, rebels made their way into their dormitories while the girls slept.
She was among only six girls who managed to escape abduction and she joined her brother in Jinja. Her education was, however, interrupted for at least a year because she was tasked to take care of her six-month-old niece, whose mother had died of HIV/Aids. Unfortunately, she succumbed to Aids.
Achan would later struggle to complete her Diploma in Social Works and Social Administration in 1998. With this qualification under her belt, she got a job with an Italian organisation that was based in the Acholi region.
At the centre, Achan’s job was to counsel and reintegrate girls and boys returning from the LRA captivity into their families.
“There was a 16-year-old Proscovia Adong, who was pregnant and had a child of two and half years old. Her parents were killed by the rebels and she had nowhere to go,” she recounts.
“I took her into my one-bedroom house and after six months, I enrolled her into an apprenticeship with a local tailor, who helped her set up her own business,” she adds.
In 2000, her organisation offered her a scholarship to further her education in counselling at Mbarara University of Science and Technology. Around the same time, in a camp in Pader Town, about 40 women were released by the rebels and their children were becoming a burden because their families would not take them back.
Achan felt it was her duty to support the helpless girls and their children. “We started with makeshifts huts. Soldiers would provide food and six months later, UNICEF came in to support. Some of these victims were wounded and needed treatment, majority of them had babies while others were pregnant,” she says.
“Later months, we started to provide counselling and rehabilitation to these girls, who had unique challenges, especially the reality that most of them were being rejected by their parents and relatives who were also stuck in camps,” she adds.
According to Achan, this was not enough. There was a need to equip them with vocational skills to enable them to be financially independent.
With the financial support of a US partner later in 2007, she built a structure designed to support girls who had babies to complete school.
This is how Pader Girls’ Academy was birthed. Achan says 46 formerly abducted girls who were either pregnant or had children, were absorbed that same year.
Currently, Pader Girls’ Academy has more than 300 girls while Nwoya Girls’ Academy which was opened in 2015, has 145 girls-60 in secondary school and 85 in the tertiary institution.The tertiary section teaches vocational skills such as tailoring and bakery.
9,000 former abductees rehabilitated
Achan has touched many lives during the 14 years she has been running the girls’ academies in both Pader and Nwoya districts.
At least 9,000 former abductees, child mothers and female victims of gender-based violence have been given a new lease of life.
“The last set of LRA returnees we handled was in 2010, when they arrived from DRC (Congo). We are currently supporting and rehabilitating teenage mothers, orphans and vulnerable girls in communities,” she says. Before the second lockdown was announced, the enrolment at both academies was 300 including 50 child mothers, 50 pregnant, 70 with special needs and 50 babies.
Learners hail from Kabarole, Kampala, Karamoja, Busoga region, Soroti, Mbale and within districts in the Acholi region.
“Although our capacity can support 500, we end up with only 300 mothers, especially where you have nearly 100 of them with children, catering for the kids is a new set of responsibilities more critical than their mothers themselves,” she said.
At the academies in Pader and Nwoya, the girls undergo short courses in vocational studies.
More efforts needed
Achan’s major challenge remains limited resources to support and rebuild the lives of young children and women who have failed to pick up their pieces.
“You will find a 16-year-old girl given to a man as a second or a third wife and society has somewhat normalized that. But many of them cannot sustain such marriages and they end up as single mothers,” she adds.
She faults government for failure to establish coherent plans to address the crisis associated with the protracted conflict.
Achan says after the insurgency, families were greatly affected so much that children are on their own after they lost their parents to the war.
“In Pader or Nwoya where I work, for example, I struggle to support young women despite the limited resources. If only our government could understand how important comprehensive social rehabilitation for anybody is,” she notes.
She adds that lack of financial support from the government has somehow slowed the progress of the rehabilitation efforts. “There is no support that we get from government—in terms of technical support and facilitating the learners we expect some financial support from the line ministry.”
Last year, Achan together with Philippa Tyndale, co-authored a book, a gripping memoir titled The School of Restoration.
In the book, she gives an account of how she has been able to contain and rebuild the lives of women devastated by the two-decade LRA war, which ended nearly 15 years ago.
“My journey has been characterised by sowing a seed of hope among hopeless young women who lost their homes, their families, everything,” she says.
At the academy, Acan says victims are grouped into different categories where they share their experiences and focus on the next steps required to revamp their lives.
Achan says she is sourcing for additional financing to enable her to continue working with a growing number of women and girls at the two institutions.
“I feel obliged to see a change in their social, economic and psychological lives. I feel content with healing the lives of fellow women and daughters, having created for them an avenue to learn new skills.”
What motivates Achan is the determination to change a life, irrespective of their origin. Her vision is to model women leaders, especially those capable of transforming society.
Her works have seen her win an award in 2015 by CARITAS Switzerland for the positive impact she had on women and girls in rehabilitating them to school and their families.
Asked if she runs the two schools on her own, she says she depends a lot on foreign donations from agencies such as CARITAS Switzerland, Uganda Fund that is UK-based, Cross Roads Communication International, among others. She is currently the director and founder of CCF, an organisation that set up and runs Pader Girls School in Pader and Nwoya Girls’ Academy in Nwoya districts.
Lack of a social safety net
CCF fundraises for the two schools and gives them technical and financial support while the two academies take care of the educational needs of girls sexually abused by the rebels.
“Today, the rebels are no more but there is a 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 net to protect women,” Achan says.
What others say
Sharon Apiyo, a resident of Onyumtil village, Anaka town in Nwoya District, also a former beneficiary of Ms Achan’s efforts feels indebted to her. She attributes her success to Ms Achan’s determination to see her somewhere in life.
“There were many of us who went to institutions with her support.My peasant parents could not raise the Shs2 million needed to start my first year at a nursing school,” she said.
After completing her studies three years ago, she joined Achan to offer professional health services such as family planning and antenatal care. “Alice is outspoken, loving, and above all, she is humane. Without her, I wouldn’t be able to support my siblings in school and take care of my ageing parents at the moment,” Apiyo adds.
David Otto Labeja, a resident of Koro-Abole in the Omoro District says efforts like those of Achan are unique and positive to a developing society and should be strengthened.
“Usually when girls are impregnanted, parents tend to disown them. They cannot continue with school, yet most men are not willing to marry them. Alice has given them an opportunity to complete school.”
“Today, the academies are skilling girls and providing affordable health services to the vulnerable to those who cannot afford such services,” Labeja says.