Protecting the Girl Child in the Time of COVID-19

Gazing into the sky as she speaks, the emptiness in her occasionally teary eyes shows. Her words come from a place of trauma. Though carefully masked, every word is laced with pain. The little girl’s attempt at veiling her wounded soul seethes. Indeed, Mercy (not her real name), a Congolese refugee in Uganda, has known pain, the type no child should go through. The trauma of a forced marriage will do that. Mercy experienced it, and healing will be a process. School is a good start; she is glad that Windle International Uganda is helping collect the pieces.

Her Story

One day during the coronavirus-induced school shutdown, Mercy heard a knock on their door; it was a family friend. She told her that her mother had suggested she quickly pack up and go live with a motorcycle rider several kilometers away. No one was home, and the impressionable Mercy believed the older woman; after all, she was her mother’s close friend. Quickly, she left their home in Misyera village, in Isingiro District, and arrived at the 30-year-old cyclist’s tiny room.

Little did she know that it was all a trick! Their family friend had taken money from the muscly rider and promised to bring him a young wife. Mercy was it. Though barely of age, the 14-year-old Mercy became a victim of this kidnapping and repeated rape. “I stayed with him for weeks,” she whispers, carefully avoiding the details of the stay. It is the silence that follows this narration that speaks volumes. Asked if the man was violent towards her, she shakes her head as she fights back the tears. Mercy was abused; she is bruised!  When next she speaks, it’s to feign jauntiness: “He used to buy me soda and cake.” Another silence follows that statement; the young girl has talked herself into believing it was okay.

However, back home, her family had reported her missing, and the ‘friendly’ neighbor was right there pretending to help with the search. Lucky for Mercy, with support from Windle International Uganda, Misyera Primary School, where she studied, made home outreaches to learners and anyone found missing was sought out. Mercy wasn’t home, and quickly a search for the young learner in Primary Five then begun.

Together with the community and law enforcement officers, the teachers found a traumatized Mercy nestled in the tiny room where her abuser ensured she stayed away from prying eyes. Upon seeing the ‘unwanted’ guests, the cyclist escaped, and there is still a search for him, while the lady who ‘sold’ Mercy was apprehended. Windle International went a step ahead to ensure Mercy was removed from that community and given a chance to heal in a school where the pupils knew nothing about her. Lucky for them, Mercy’s former teacher, now the caretaker of Nyaruguru Primary School, predominantly supported by Windle International Uganda, Edgar Mulangira, was more than ready for the task at hand. Today she is back in school and all the costs have been met by Windle International Uganda. “I want to be a nurse,” Mercy whispers. “I like being in school.” She is trying to put everything behind her, it helps that she is around fellow learners and they can dream together.

The bigger picture

At the onset of the lockdown, Windle International Uganda anticipated school dropouts, teenage pregnancies, and forced marriages. They weaved a homeschooling project that saw learners receive visits from teachers and an endless supply of books to keep them busy. “That is how we managed to notice who was in trouble and quickly find them some help,” Edgar Mulangira explains. “We actually found many more girls missing; especially those in upper primary.”

Not only did Windle International Uganda support the learning process during the lockdown, but they also enabled the Senior Woman teachers, Senior Man teachers, and the Village Education Committees to trace all missing learners. “The school would coordinate with the committee to inform us of any missing girls and if they were from our school, we would take it as a matter of urgency,” Mulangira speaks.

The support from Windle International Uganda enabled the school to dialogue with parents of the missing girls, investigate within the community, and leave no stone unturned. “We knew when our learner was in trouble,” he starts. “When we get there and the parents hide, because at times they might have received some cash, we know there is a problem.”

Despite registering 185 learners, only 180 sat for Primary Living Examinations; the missing five were all girls. It could have been worse, given the number of times they noticed some red flags and saved the young girls. “I thank Windle International for not only helping us run this school efficiently, but also ensuring our learners complete primary level at a time when many were dropping out,” an elated Mulangira says. “Besides keeping our learning going, they also ensured that the teachers’ salaries were paid during the lockdown and they didn’t have reason to abandon the job.”

Because of Windle International Uganda, the Nakivale Refugee Settlement-based Nayaruguru Primary School can account for its pupils. It will not stop until the five who dropped out of school sit their Primary Living Examinations.

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