Taking Back Our Future
When a Girl is Robbed of Her Childhood, What Happens to Her Future?
What if your daughter was born into Uganda’s 20-year civil war, thrust into a world of horrifying violence? She may have survived rape as a tactic of war, witnessed deaths of friends and loved ones, and watched her home burn to the ground at the hands of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army. Between 1986 and 2006, more than 25,000 children were abducted from their villages, forced to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. If your daughter made it to the nearest camp for shelter, she still wasn’t safe. In the country’s largest camp, six out of every ten women reported sexual and gender-based violence (UNICEF 2005). Most survivors were girls between 13 and 17.
This Stops Now: One Girl’s Struggle to Take Her Power Back
When Harriet was 15, two life-changing things happened. The rebel Lord’s Resistance Army finally left Uganda, allowing families like hers to return to what was left of their homes. That same year, Harriet gave birth to her first child. Suddenly, she and her husband, Emmanuel, had to look to the
future. But that seemed impossible.
Problems like alcohol abuse, joblessness, and domestic violence that ran rampant at the camp followed Harriet and Emmanuel home. “It was chaos,” she says.
“Whenever I came back from the market, I would find my husband angry. If I was late and he was drinking, he would beat me.” Harriet says the beatings were frequent—about three times a week.
She pleaded with her in-laws for help. “If they hadn’t intervened, he would have kicked me out of my house.” Harriet had no power. Violence between husband and wife was widely accepted by young people in her community.
(In fact, research conducted by our partner, Georgetown University’s Institute of Reproductive Health, prior to implementing the program, revealed most young people believed physical violence was okay if it was used to “teach, discipline, or punish,” and done in a “controlled and proper manner”—i.e., when a person is told what they did wrong and asked to lie down to receive a beating so they don’t suffer additional harm from standing up while being beaten.)
Harriet had no control over her body. “We had child after child,” she says. She had no choice. The couple didn’t have information about contraception or know where to get it. By 21, Harriet was taking care of three children—two girls and a boy. Each child experienced a cycle of violence and powerlessness their parents could not break. Until the GREAT project helped them break it.
A Revolutionary Program You Have To See
In 2012 Pathfinder helped launch an innovative project for young people in northern Uganda. The GREAT (Gender Roles, Equality, and Transformation) project helps young people like Harriet and Emmanuel break free from violence, improve their sexual and reproductive health, and promote equal opportunities for girls and boys.
“When my husband and I joined GREAT, we learned so many things,” says Harriet. “About how to live healthy and peacefully.”
Now, twice a month, Harriet and Emmanuel meet with their close-knit group of about 30 young people to learn about their bodies and health. They discuss why all young people—no matter their gender—should be safe and free to follow their dreams.
How does it work? GREAT gives young people the opportunity to debate issues—the ways girls and boys interact, how they share power, and how it affects their daily lives. As a group, they talk, reflect, evolve their thinking, and have fun doing it. (Don’t take our word for it. Check out the slideshow above!)
You may ask, “But doesn’t a 10-year-old girl have very different sexual and reproductive health needs than a 19-year-old mother?” Absolutely. We tailor our program accordingly. Girls entering puberty can flip through the GREAT storybook to discuss the protagonist’s changing body, while young parents like Harriet and Emmanuel can listen to GREAT’s weekly radio drama. As a group, they use their GREAT Radio Discussion Guide to talk about the dramatic stories—about sex, contraception, relationships, and more.
All young people can play GREAT’s life-sized board game. They answer questions like “Do you respect boys who do not use violence against girls?” and “How can someone prevent unintended pregnancy?” Every game ends in celebration. Players form a circle around the winner, who leads them in a traditional dance—a strong source of cultural pride that no war can ever take away from them.
“We’ve learned so many things, things we want others to learn!”
Today, at her home in Lira, Uganda, Harriet wants you to see how much her life has changed. “Since we joined the project, my husband has been so supportive. We are happier as a family,” she says, asking Emmanuel and her children to come stand beside her. “There is much less fighting and violence. We are finding peace in our home. And that has a lot to do with what we learned.”
It’s impossible not to notice Emmanuel’s bright green t-shirt. Displayed across his back, in bold letters for everyone to see—“GREAT parents treat boys and girls equally. Do you?”
“I have changed a lot in the way I feel about my wife and the way we treat each other,” Emmanuel says proudly. Harriet happily offers proof—“Now, when I return from the market, I find he has already bathed the children and even prepared food for them. That never happened before. We are sharing chores and starting to make decisions together. And love comes from all of this. That is why I love GREAT. My home has changed. I feel like I have control over what happens to us now.”
Harriet now controls her body too. “I chose to use family planning for my future,” she says. Emmanuel agrees—“I learned from the project that it’s not good for my wife’s health to keep having child after child. I want her to be healthy.”
Harriet smiles, pulling her daughter into a hug. “Today, I feel like a respected woman.”
The GREAT project is led by Georgetown University’s Institute of Reproductive Health, in partnership with Pathfinder and Save the Children, and is supported by USAID.