By Agnes Igoye
Human trafficking is a pervasive, global problem with severe implications for its victims. Most of these victims are lured into leaving their homes and countries to chase their dreams and to improve their lives, only to fall prey to exploitation as sex and/or slave labor. Both internal and external trafficking exist in Uganda, which is a source, transit, and destination country for trafficking in persons.
Statistically, Uganda is witnessing a decline in reported cases of human trafficking. According to the National Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Office, there were 837 cases in 2013, and 293 in 2014. But these statistics are not cause for celebration, because to us in Uganda, even one victim is too many. Despite the success of awareness campaigns, Uganda still grapples with the challenges of counter-trafficking. The biggest is the lack of shelters and rehabilitation centers, which has left survivors unshielded from their traffickers.
During recent periods of instability in northern Uganda, NGOs and other stakeholders offered emergency response aid including shelter in internally displaced people’s camps, food, and health services, which was critical. But now that it’s time for reconstruction, several NGOs have withdrawn support from communities that had become dependent on it. Countering this dependency is thus a key challenge in creating sustainable rehabilitation programs.
In my work, I have been inspired by survivors who are not waiting for help to come to them but are engaged in innovative solutions to better their situations after exploitation. The Huts For Peace program, which I founded in 2013 in the Paicho, Gulu District of northern Uganda, showed me ways in which victims of human trafficking can regain dignity and fulfill their basic needs without depending on outside aid. Positive results so far suggest that it could provide a model for getting survivors of trafficking involved in the creation and execution of their own recovery.
The program began when I met with homeless members of the group ‘Rwot Omiyo’ (literally meaning “the lord has given”), which consists of 14 women and one man. The man was incorporated into the group because he was literate, and could ensure that decisions were put into writing. Their reason for coming together was mainly to share experiences, including surviving abduction, torture, and rape as a weapon of war during the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency led by rebel leader Joseph Kony. All of the members had a story to tell.
During our first meeting, it became evident that the women, most of whom were widowed during the war, had taken up the burden of caring for orphans and grandchildren and yet were either homeless or had inadequate housing. One widow had six daughters who had to look for a place to sleep each night, while another, together with her children, was sent away from her marital home by the relatives of her late husband who had died in abduction. She was blamed for the atrocities her husband had subjected to the community at the orders of the LRA. There were also common stories of women who lived in cramped huts with multiple grandchildren and orphans, many of whom had lost their parents to the war or to HIV, which was prevalent in the area due to war crimes. Stigma from the community was evident for many of these women, who were viewed as “rebels’” wives.
The women needed a way to empower themselves both socially and economically. When I heard their stories, I challenged them: “Why don’t we build huts ourselves, since we don’t have husbands to do it for us,” and then we brainstormed and mobilized locally available materials like grass, water, and soil for brickmaking. For materials like nails and hard wood that required finances I used personal resources, and collectively we started building, one hut at a time. The women drew up a roster and prioritized the order in which they would get housing, starting with those who were completely homeless, lacked land, or had girl children who were most vulnerable to abuse. The local church donated some land for hut construction, and we used financial gifts only to purchase construction materials that were not available in the community.
The Huts For Peace initiative has had encouraging results. It has housed 22 extended families to date, and is spreading to other districts in Uganda. In addition to building huts, the women devised a community plow-sharing system to till their gardens, which allows them to grow their own food and sell the surplus for other necessities. The physical activities of building and plowing are typically reserved for men in these communities, and the women gain ownership and pride by doing such work themselves. It makes them respectable leaders in their communities, and some have taken up other community leadership roles, because people see value in them. While men have supported the program by joining as volunteers, the women remain in charge.
While building huts, we spread a message of peace and reconciliation (hence the name “Huts for Peace”) that minimizes the stigma of survivors, especially those who were forced to kill their own relatives. Volunteers from the community are welcome and members eat together, share experiences, and forge solutions to challenges while promoting peace and reconciliation. The initiative is sustainable because the main building materials—grass, wood, and cow dung—are readily available. In areas of mass displacement due to conflict, trees and grass are always overgrown and become a useful resource for returning communities.
The Huts For Peace program is due to launch next in the Lira District of Uganda. Working with The Global Livingstone Institute, 40 women in Lira who have experienced gender-based violence due to the war will participate in Huts for Peace, constructing housing for their families. The model remains the same and the Global Livingstone Institute will assist only in providing construction materials that are not available in the community. As someone who has been displaced, I know the importance of having a place to call home. In other parts of Africa that have undergone or are still in the midst of civil conflict, Huts for Peace could be replicated to help survivors of trafficking rebuild their lives.
Agnes Igoye is the Deputy National Coordinator of Uganda’s Anti-Human Trafficking Taskforce, Training Manager at the Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and a member of the Clinton Global Initiative.
[Photos courtesy of Agnes Igoye]