The memories came fast, unsolicited and deeply painful.
It hadn’t even been a week since I was sworn in as an official Peace Corps volunteer that I found myself at a two day workshop about child protective rights. The workshop was presented by the Bantwana Initiative of the World Education organization. I was the only Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda assigned to work with them as my secondary project.
In typical Ugandan fashion, I was given a 1 day notice and absolutely no information about the nature of the workshop. As I entered the tiny classroom where myself and 40 head teachers and deputies were assembling, my mind raced with all the things I still had to do back in my new home. I was high on the novelty of living in a place without electricity or running water and I disliked being away from the only home I’ve ever had to myself. Two days seemed like a lifetime where my to-do list was concerned. I quickly prepared myself mentally with a pep talk as I realized that the workshop was about child abuse in Uganda but as always, I could not anticipate the direction of my memories.
The presenter, clad in a kitenge blouse and matching skirt, started talking about a recent survey conducted by the organization “to assess the level of knowledge, attitude and practices regarding child protection among pupils, teachers and community case care workers.” She defined the sample size: 546 pupils from P4 and P5, 85 teachers and 20 CCCWs. Then, she gave us the numbers.
95.8% of children reported having been abused in and around the sampled schools through bullying, use of harsh words and vulgar language and “bad touches.”
I saw myself at 6 years old, being touched in places that I’ve yet to discover myself. I was scared, confused and ashamed, emotions that would characterize my entire childhood and teenage years.
62.1% of children interviewed reported that abuse had been by a teacher.
What I remembered most of the teacher was his white beard and disgusting mouth. I never looked at him when he called me into that dark room but his face remains clear in my mind. Instead I focused on the ruler on his desk that he used to hit the other students. The ruler had a girl’s name written on it and I made up stories, wondering if he touched her too, like he touched me. When he was finished, told me that I was a bad girl, echoing the words of my parents.
52% of children disagree that adults who have sex with a child should be punished.
I saw myself at age 21, sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a therapist’s office at the brink of a breakdown as more and more details flooded my memories. “You talk like you deserved the abuse. No one deserves abuse.” I succumbed to my vulnerability.
18.7% said they or their friends had had sex with an adult in the past six months.
I snapped back to the present, to the almost 25 year old me – still vulnerable but equipped with a feeling of strength that came from battling far too many demons. Although my experience never led to penetration, I could imagine all too well what these kids were going through and I was angry.
The rest of the day was spent discussing ways to bring awareness to schools about child protective rights and how to increase reporting of child abuse cases in school. We learned how to provide guidance and counseling to children and how to create an open environment for communication. I had a discussion with the country director and project coordinators and I told them my story, something I feel like I will be doing a lot of in the coming months.
Later that night, I sat in my candlelit living room sipping on a glass of red wine and reflecting on the day. Although I was emotionally exhausted, a sense of peace had settled in and the closing words of the presenter resonated in my head “If not you, then who? If not now, then when?”