Esther Nakajjigo, Uganda: Founder Global Girls Movement

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Washed up bodies at seashore; children dying by the minutes for lack of proper care; rape, among other issues, have become the trite headline from the Mediterranean and other illegal immigration routes. More than half of the world’s forced migrants are women. These issues are what keeps Easter up at night. In this exclusive Interview, she tells us about her strategy towards given migration a human face. Excerpts:

One of your passions is to give migration a human face; how do you intend to do this?
No pain is worse in the history of human kind than pain of a gang raped woman who has witnessed brutal killing of her husband before she is uprooted within the borders of her land and forced to flee with only 1 out of her 5 children.

Experience has taught me that 80% of women use silence to express pain. I asked, then who will ever lift the voice of more than half of the world’s forced migrants who are women and girls?
I found myself as the answer and it is why I wake up every day and push hard for a human face of migration. I have already embarked on this journey when l founded the Global Girls Movement.

Through an annual expedition called LIFT (Living in the Face of Trauma) which will be a reality television series, 5 girls from each of the selected universities across the globe are allocated a refugee camp anywhere in the world and they have only 15 days to live a life of refugee women and girls and to innovate for a decent life of refugee women and girls while brokering peaceful co-existence with host communities.

The Objectives of the Global Girls Movement will be:

To work with universities in a host nation to share experiences, document voices and author the State of the World’s Refugee Women and Girls report giving opportunity to regional bodies and the United Nations to speak directly to the real refugee woman on ground on what she proposes should be done to restore world peace so as to find a lasting solution to the global challenge of migration.

To be a global pressure group using facts in the State of the World’s Refugee Women and Girls report to be released annually to press governments, regional bodies and the United Nations to put in action what refugee women and girls believe should be done to prevent migration of more women across the globe.

To use their experience having lived lives of refugee women and girls to often remind the world that “we cannot and should not stop people from migrating; we have to give them a better life at home. Migration is just a process, not a problem and borders are simply borders and difference is not dangerous”.

Amidst a turbulent donor situation, university girls will be tasked to create a self-sustaining Global Girls Movement where participants identify opportunities around them and in their communities to fund the sustainable innovations they come up with in their respective camps.

To inspire, nurture and coach a movement of aspiring future world leaders who will do what the current breed of world leaders have failed to do; ‘re-writing the narrative of migration and give it a human face’.

In a pilot carried out with girls from local universities of Kampala University and Makerere University in 2017 in the world’s largest refugee settlement – Bidibidi in Uganda, their experience living a life of refugee women in Bidibidi taught them that the influx of refugees in this settlement has posed grave implications on climate change yet another global challenge as forests are cleared to build settlements and more forests cut to provide firewood to refugee communities. As their innovation, they innovated an energy saving stove locally made from mud and wattle which is available everywhere. These stoves eliminate smoke and create a healthier kitchen environment for refugees, cook faster and retain heat for a longer time, save over 65% of firewood compared to a tradition three-stone fireplace and also protect refugee women and their children from open fire accidents. If rolled out in the entire refugee settlement, this girls’ innovation has capacity to save 60% of Uganda’s trees that will be cut in the next 3 years to support cooking in refugee communities.

According to United Nations Population Fund, Sub-Saharan Africa had the highest prevalence of teenage pregnancy in the world in 2013. The report also goes further to say that births to teenage mothers account for more than half of all the births in this region: an estimated 101 births per 1000 women aged 15 to 19; what in your view can be done to keep our teenagers in school rather than an early embrace of motherhood?
Every day in Uganda, hundreds of less-suspecting young girls are tricked into sex and impregnated when they do not know what they had was sex. A young and pregnant girl is placed between a rock and a hard place. Instead of being protected, she is instead crucified, condemned and officially declared useless by her own community while the child predator enjoys his freedom with impunity.

We need to empower our teenage girls with information so that they can be able to make informed choices to manage their sexual and reproductive health lives. A teenage girl with appropriate information will be able to identify a good touch from a bad one, she can be able to quickly identify who wants to defile her even when she chooses to have sex, she will protect herself or demand her partner to do so.

Young people across the world are now becoming more sexually active at an early age and being sexually active should not mean leaving school due to early pregnancy. Denying access to sexual and reproductive health information to teenagers thinking that we are protecting them is disastrous and before you know it, someone somewhere will be convincing your daughter that “if we have sex while standing you won’t get pregnant!!” or “if we have sex and jump, jump six times you won’t get pregnant” and she will innocently give in.

This is the catastrophe that befell Uganda which chose to officially remain silent on issues of sex and sexuality among teenagers by banning sex education claiming it was promoting immorality in schools.

It is no wonder in the Eastern parts of Uganda young girls trade virginity for a plate of food.

The National Study on Assessing Child Protection Safety and Security Issues for children in Uganda found out that 77% of the primary and 82 % of secondary students had experienced sexual violence while 5.9% were subjected to defilement by their teachers.

I believe that the solution to teenage pregnancy cannot come from government but rather from girls themselves. Therefore, to bridge this gap, l came up with a platform for privileged and empowered urban girls to reach out to rural underprivileged and disempowered girls as role models to inspire and motivate them to prevail over teenage pregnancies.

The “Saving Innocence” challenge, a high school reality television show on Uganda’s biggest television station lifts the most vulnerable girls in our communities from a position of hopelessness to a position of strength and from a position of vulnerability to a position where they are empowered. It is a girl-initiated sexual and reproductive health program carried out by girls for girls and financed by girls themselves. Since its inception 2 years ago, it has won 2 national awards and a Geneva Women’s World Prize as the best intervention in the world empowering rural girls.

At age 17 you were named Uganda’s Ambassador for Women and Girls; what has been your experience promoting gender issues in Uganda?
I was only 11 but l used to witness babies born to children caught up in commercial transactional sex in my community, Uganda’s biggest “red light” slum of Kabalagala being scooped out of pit latrines almost every after the other day” ……..l said to myself someone one day must put an end to this………..that is how l ended up doing what l am doing today. I started by volunteering at a community health centre at the age of 14 to help girls trapped in sex slavery have access to information and services.

It’s not easy being pregnant in Uganda. Nor is it always safe in a country that has one of the highest teenage pregnancies and highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

When a government health facility which used to serve close to 800 patients a day was closed for upgrading, close to 2.5 million Ugandans living in and around my community were not referred anywhere to seek for medical services. The nearest public health facility was 12kms away and was too crowded that some patients would wait for 2 days to see a Doctor. The young people who were enrolled of ARVs, Family Planning including those who could come for health information and condoms started retreating. Adherence to ARVs for young positives became nearly impossible. Young people started engaging in risky sexual behavior since they could no longer access free condoms yet could not abstain either.

There was a likelihood of an outbreak of new HIV infections among young people in the area and high death rates resulting from non-adherence.

Young people started following me at my parents’ home asking me for the next plan which l personally didn’t have. I could wake up in the morning only to find them filled in my mother’s compound, we started meeting under trees and on people’s verandahs.

One specific incident that challenged me to start a health facility happened when I had gone visiting a friend at night, we heard loud cries at the neighbourhood and we rushed, ……it was shocking.

“She wept bitterly in pain as elderly women looked at her in resignation, they had done everything possible they knew under the sun since afternoon to get the baby out but all in vain, “…the baby is wrongly positioned, they murmured…. instead of the head it is the hand peeping.” She groaned, threw the legs and hands sideways, bit her teeth hard and shouted calling her mother for help over and over again until suddenly, the groans faded and all was silence….”

14-year-old Ellen got pregnant in Primary Six by a classmate, she endured a lot to keep the pregnancy in a community where Death is a more familiar visitor than a doctor, in an area where it is easier to get a bottle of booze than a glass of clean water, the nearest health facility where she could seek assistance was 22km from her home, she had never heard about antenatal, her life was entirely in the hands of the community elderly women who by this time had run out of ideas. In this village, the angel of death was known to take people’s souls shortly after midnight, that was the time when Ellen died.

I stood cold and speechless. Pitch-black was that night, as only African nights can be. The moon was hidden behind a thick blanket of clouds. Even stars that nowhere in the world shine so brightly as near the Equator were all covered in darkness that fateful night.

I told myself hundreds of girls will continue to die, I challenged myself not be a spectator I engaged my mother in a hotly contested debate which pushed me to choose between pursuing my education or helping the community. I asked my mother to give me the house she was renting so l can serve the community. I was in my high school vacation with only a few months left to join university and this is where my university tuition was to come from. I made a suicide decision and chose to help community over pursuing my education after all l was one and they were many and suffering. They needed it more than l did. Mum looked at me in disbelief, she shook her head in discontent for several times before forcing herself to say yes.

I am glad she believed in me and in a lot of hardships and great improvisation I started a health centre, together with my friends, we embarked on a campaign to look for partners to help us translate this dream into reality. Gladly many saw our passion and chose to join us including a team of volunteer health workers. Paragon hospital helped us with used medical equipment which started a facility at a level of a health centre III. While launching the health centre in 2014, among the many guests l invited to witness, was a representative from the King of Buganda, the biggest royal monarchy in Uganda, when l shared my story he was touched, a week later, he brought me a letter from the King, he had granted me a scholarship at his university to study for free. I was excited but mum was more. I remembered what my Sunday school teacher once told me, that “you do God’s work and he will do yours”. I am still enrolled on the King’s scholarship in my 2nd year of study pursuing a Bachelors Degree in Marketing.

Challenging Patriarchy in the L. Victoria islands of Kalangala.

Kalangala district in the islands of L. Victoria is probably Africa’s most complex and difficult place to live. There is a remarkably lower proportion of women compared to men (1 woman for 3 men) forcing men to porch on innocent bodies of girls as young as 11. Kalangala district has 84 islands, 64 are habited and 20 do not have people living there, this is where defilers run to escape justice. It is very difficult to seek justice for girls defiled in the islands as police lacks capacity in terms of fuel to pursue perpetrators. Parents choose to marry off girls to their defilers because when they report, the defiler will run away and leave them with a burden to caring for a girl and the grandchild. There is high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, generally poor health care, lack of government services, frequent family breakdown, widespread belief in witchcraft, alcoholism, high levels of commercial sex work, and a relatively young Church all of which shape the world they know. The challenging lifestyle island women and girls live is further worsened by strangers who come to escape the mainland from stigma from HIV/AIDS and the law. Few people build permanent housing and most live in shacks with poor sanitation and hygiene. Family structure is nearly non-existent leading to vulnerable women and children at risk for neglect, abuse, and increasing problems with unwanted pregnancies and the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. The men tend to spend their money on entertainment (alcohol and women), rather than investment. Men fish, but women are often employed for sorting and cleaning fish and you have to first satisfy a man’s sexual feelings for him to sell to you the fish you need to smoke to care for your family. Women are poorly compensated and often expected to provide sexual favors for their employers. The only job that pays well for women is commercial sex work, which many women do in order to provide for themselves and their children. There is an overwhelming burden of disease, HIV infection, and poor prospects for individuals with minor illnesses, poor understanding of basic health and hygiene all of which are exacerbated by the traditional beliefs that the few hours’ boat ride to the mainland leaves them a forgotten people group and one that seems to be too costly and complex for the government to provide effective health services.

Above all, the islands are a spiritually dark and desolate place where spiritual warfare is active and visible requiring those with very exceptional, peculiar and courageous hearts like Esther Nakajjigo to brave to cause change in a land where every illness is attributed to witchcraft. I came to learn about this forgotten land through a friend at school who carried out an abortion on herself in a school bathroom at night using 2 sharp sticks. After bleeding the entire night, school authorities released her to go home and she was put on the boat to her home in the islands. On reaching there, instead of being rushed for emergency medical attention, she was taken to a traditional shrine where she spent another day. Sonia was pronounced dead the following evening, she was only 15. I was only 14 and was challenged by such a culture and tradition. The only Health Centre II in the community had been deserted by people that health workers would sit the entire day with few patients checking in. I mobilized the health workers to begin doing community sensitization, I would visit the island and could spend her entire school holiday creating demand for health services, encouraging women to go for antenatal, mothers to take their children for immunization and young people to seek for adolescent health services.

When I became the Ambassador, I carried our Season 2 of the Saving Innocence Challenge in these islands and together with the girls we started an adolescent sexual and reproductive health services project in these islands to combat new HIV infections occurring among young people and address the notorious vice of child transactional sex and teenage pregnancies by withdrawing, rehabilitating and returning to school young girls trapped in sex slavery.

With the near absence of dependable data that can help in tracking progress, how do we measure the successes thus far of the Sustainable Development Goals in the continent?
Why in the first place should dependable data be absent in the continent? What is it that is so costly for the African continent to afford dependable data?

The business of considering the African continent to always be vulnerable is more of an excuse than a reason for failure to match global standards.

Africa is famous to have leaders richer than their nations. It is simply madness and practical lack of will to invest in obtaining dependable data to measure successes of the SDGs in the continent.

Let’s hold the continent accountable and penalize nations that give inexistent data as a reason for failure to measure progress.

Africa is home to the world’s youngest population with about 60% of her young people within the ages of 18-25, and projected to double by the year 2050; what do you think is the implication of a growing population without a commensurate growth in jobs and employment opportunities?
Africa is likely to be plagued with a paradox of poverty amidst plenty. Africa will produce a great deal of human resource which would not be deployed anywhere. This is likely to result into a very high cost of living and a very poor standard of living in Africa. Levels of corruption will dramatically increase and misappropriation of public resources. The youth will practically find life in Africa so hard to live and will perceive having access to a gun as the only way to have a share of the national cake. Africa will never have peace when her youth are never gainfully employed. Those who have the energy will fight and those who do not will be on the move to seek for a better life. African youth and migration will become synonymous. The west will tighten her borders and, in the end, African youth will purchase eternal plots of land in the Mediterranean Sea while struggling to live the American and European dream.

I think time is almost up for Africa to start thinking seriously on issues of fertility control and management through investing in family planning and targeting a qualitative population.

What are the talking points for you during EDD program for 2018?

  1. a) “We cannot and should not stop people from migrating; we have to give them a better life at home. Migration is just a process, not a problem and borders are simply borders and difference is not dangerous”. From a perspective of a young (African) woman.
  2. b) What it means to be a refugee woman in the world’s largest refugee settlement, Bidibidi in Uganda (with 86% of the refugees being women and girls).

How would you say your project is helping to favorably influence policies and also create awareness in Uganda?
My project “Saving Innocence Challenge”, a high school reality television series or urban girls empowering their rural counterparts to prevail over teenage pregnancies, sexual abuse and slavery. It reaches the most vulnerable victim at the very bottom of the grassroots and gives her a voice to share her life experiences through Uganda’s largest media house and the most watched television station Bukedde TV1. Getting urban, empowered and rich girls from the city schools to go deep in hard to reach districts to live lives of the poorest of the poor, need of the needy young girls and child mothers in a reality television show brings into lime light which policies work and how they are scoring. This show puts to test government programs claimed to have been put in place to benefit the poor, government services claimed to have been extended for the poor, and the voice of those intended to benefit is listened to and is watched currently by 7.3 million Ugandans within and abroad and the number is increasing. In specific districts like Kamuli with highest teenage pregnancies in Uganda where my project brought into lime light that 78% of high school girls have actually ever been sexually harassed and 5.9% of girls had been defiled by their own teachers, it practically forced the local district administration to pass an ordinance before the urban girls who had visited the district committing zero tolerance to child sexual abuse and child marriages. They vowed to arrest any member of the community who will ever attend a marriage ceremony of an underage girl.

My other project LIFT (Living in the Face of Trauma) is also a reality television show which brings together girls from different universities in the world to innovate for a decent life for migrant women and girls and to find lasting solutions to the global challenge of migration.

LIFT targets to influence not only policies of individual governments but also archaic and outdated international laws that are no longer in touch with reality, international laws that no longer protect but have become a threat to international peace.

LIFT 2019 which will be carried out by universities in selected refugee camps across the globe will push for amendment of Article 2.4 of the United Nations Charter which in the eyes of the women and girls of Uganda has led to sprouting of a modern breed of power-greed leaders who change constitutions against the will of their citizens to prolong their stay in power and succeed to evade the long arm of the international community claiming “Article 1 of our constitution says power belongs to the people and therefore the people have spoken”. Even when the whole world can see what they are doing is wrong, such leaders are protected by Article 2.4 which we believe should be measured and a standard set to protect powerless citizens whom politicians often speak for claiming it’s them who have spoken even when what they have said hurts the human rights of their citizens.

It is such mafia governments protected by Article 2.4 that are responsible for the global influx of refugees when strong and powerful citizens choose to pick a gun and fight while the weak and powerless choose to move across borders to seek peace and better living conditions.

There has been a clamor for opening up of the space for more young people in Africa’s political scene; do you see this as part of the solution to the continents’ leadership challenge?
I believe the time is now for African youth to fully engage in running of state affairs of their nations rather than being passive recipients of services and projects some of which they still do not own.

African youth should be placed at the centre stage of the development process through political inclusion so they can be aware and also take equal share of the challenges and opportunities available in their nations.

In this way, we can lift the marginalized youth in our nations from a position of powerlessness and vulnerability to a position of strength and from a position of hopelessness to a position where they are fit to change the course of their nations’ destiny.

Creating more political space for the youth will empower them to stop thinking in a box and looking at a government as a big monster barricading their way to prosperity but rather a means to support them achieve their dreams.

Youths will stop regarding having access to a gun as the only way that will lead to fulfillment of their life’s desires but rather plan together with adults on how to address the most challenging issues affecting the youth and thinking together to take African nations forward.

Locking out youth to engage in political space is a big threat to peace on the African Continent and the world as it is the youth who fight and it is the youth who migrate.