Local hip-hop star, GNL Zamba, in his Ensi Bwekuba Blow says “when the world gives you a blow, reiterate with a punch. You should never accept a single mess to pull you down forever”.
These lyrics perhaps match, Joyce Gaba Awula, a 19 year old South Sudanese refugee giving hope to her fellow refugees at Bidi-Bidi camp in Yumbe District through counselling.
It is 25 min to 12pm, Awula is engaging some youth under a makeshift. The youth are very attentive, seemingly determined not to miss a word of her conversation. The soft spoken and dark-skinned girl welcomes us and quickly offers us seats. She then asks for some minutes to finalise with her discussion with the youth.
Awula shares that counselling and sensitising youth in and around the refugee camp is her daily work.
Tragedy at home
She took on counselling because of incidents that happened to her 15 year old sister when they had just arrived in Uganda in August 2016.
“When we came here, we were strangers seeking refuge from the gunfire back home. We followed fleeing groups until we reached here.
In our second week, my sister went into her periods and needed sanitary towels but had no money. A stranger gave her Shs1500 and defiled her,” Awula recounts.
She says a man disguised as a Good Samaritan asked her sister what she wanted and she opened up and after which he gave her Shs1,500 but promised to buy her a packet of sanitary towels. Pretending he had forgotten the money at his home, he asked her to accompany him to pick it.
“My sister never thought the man would hurt her thus went with him without a second thought. When they were on the way, the man wrestled her down and defiled her. She eventually conceived and gave birth to a child whose father vanished,” Awula says.
Watching her sister suffer with an unwanted pregnancy made Awula hate life and those around them and she could develop mood swings. Awula easily picked up quarrels and loathed the men within the camp and from the hosting community.
Seeing the need to act
Seething with anger, she would witness another horrifying incident. Around midnight, she heard a piercing scream for help from a girl about five metres from her makeshift. Bravely moving closer, Awula was shocked to see six boys raping a helpless 14-year-old girl.
“The boys defiled the girl in turns while she struggled to break free, in vain. I feared to intervene lest I get raped too.
They abandoned the girl with a warning that they would repeat the act should they meet her again. I picked the girl and took her to our house,” Awula says. Awula realised that girls were falling victim because of trusting strangers, walking alone, going or returning from night clubs in wee hours.
Convinced that speaking to the girls would help, she learned many had actually fallen victim but were suffer silently. “Many revealed they had been defiled several times and most were pregnant. Adding to the pain, most pregnancies were sired by strangers,” she revealed
Many had been defiled as they tried to get money from strangers while others had met trouble returning from cinema halls and clubs.
Awula focused on teaching these girls to restrict their movements and be wary of friendly strangers.
Ray of hope
As luck would have it, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Uganda in partnership with Ministry of Health, Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, CARE International, Communication for Development Foundation Uganda, Reach a Hand Uganda (RAHU) and Outbox launched the Women, Adolescents and Young people (WAY) program funded by Danish International Development Agency.
She says the WAY programme is intended to enable women and young people among refugee and host communities to live healthy, productive lives and contribute to their communities’ development by strengthening their access to sexual and reproductive health and Gender Based Violence (GBV) prevention services. Awula was one of the first trainees as a counsellor commonly referred to as youth champions.
“When WAY programme was launched, I was selected by RAHU alongside other youth refugees from other hosting districts. We were trained on how to sensitise the youth on their sexuality and reproductive health rights [SRHR] and later awarded certificates. I became more confident and have since started counselling boys whom I initially feared,” Awula says.
UNFPA Representative, Alain Sibenaler, highlights that WAY activities are intended to create awareness for social norm change through local community groups as well as through implementation of Live Your Dream, a multimedia campaign.
“Investing in women, adolescents and youth is important in realising the right to health, education, protection, participation and economic inclusion. It improves the productivity of the labour force and builds foundations for future growth and development,” Sibenaler says.
Awula also sensitises communities on sanitation; proper human waste disposal, washing clothes and household utensils to avoid diseases due to unhygienic conditions.