By Beatrice Nakibuuka
With many adolescents not knowing how to respond to the changes in their bodies and the environment they live in, former teacher Naomi Ayot Oyaro chose the humanitarian path to give them support.
Witnessing child-headed families and adolescents who have no information about the changes in their lives, the 46 year-old mother of one and a Masters of Management Studies Degree holder, has found her solace in child protection.
After her graduation in 1996, she taught for two years but these were enough for her to understand where her calling was. According to her, “a teenager – boy or girl – is a fragile one that any changes in the environment and their body impacts on them so much. These children have no one to speak to. We only wait to blame them when they get into mistakes but never give them the support they need while growing up.”
Oyaro got into the practice of child protection in 1997 when she started teaching; fi rst at Mengo Senior School and Wisdom Senior Secondary School in Mukono. While a teacher, she realized many children go through diffi cult situations at home including abuse from relatives, strangers and family members.
“Parents don’t know this, but some children prefer to spend their holidays at school because it is the only safe and peaceful place for them. Their stories about the molestation and physical abuse they go through are so painful,” she says. Oyaro joined Canada-Africa partnership on AIDS in a campaign dubbed ‘Curb AIDS’ as a volunteer. The project based in northern and some parts of eastern Uganda aimed at improving the livelihoods of persons with HIV.
“The spread of AIDS was at its peak in the northern region. It spread from hut to hut and so many children were left to fend for their siblings,” she recalls. Oyaro rose through the ranks and became programme manager who helped people affected with HIV to access treatment, food and income. In 2012, she crossed to Raising the Village, a Kisoro-based organization to empower families through water and sanitation projects, and agriculture.
In a child-rights convention held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Oyaro got in touch with offi cials from Action for Community Development (ACODEV) because they had similar interests about child protection.
At ACODEV, it has been a good learning experience for her since 2014. She says nothing is more fulfi lling than being able to impact on a life and changing people’s perceptions.
“I visited a home in Nakaseke, but not even the village chairman knew that the family had a child with disability,” says Oyaro. “When I asked the mother to see the child with the disability, she brought a naked girl aged about 15 years and put her on the dusty fl oor. She was tired of the child who was unable to walk and answered all nature calls where she was.”
After a conversation with the mother, Naomi provided a wheel chair and diapers and upon the next visit, the mother was happy, the child would go to visit the neighbours on her own and attend church with the help of her siblings. According to a report by the Uganda police compiled in 2019, 15,366 defi lement cases were reported in 2018 compared to 14,985 cases in 2017. Some people in the cattle keeping areas do not value education.
“The few children who go to school are at risk of sexual abuse because the schools are far from their homes and the cattle keepers molest them on their way home,” Oyaro says. Being able to rescue a child that was being married is a big achievement for Oyaro. “Although the risk still remains because we do not stay with the children, we are sure the girl gets empowered and the boys in the schools are also getting involved in helping them continue with their education,” she says.
Oyaro works with a network of people in the communities she trains to report child rights violations. The team involves head teachers, police offi cers and some village health team members who help identify cases and encourage the children stay in school.
Since November 2017, Oyaro is a programme manager with Set Her Free, an organisation that ensures all marginalised girls in the urban poor slums of Uganda, are empowered and free from all forms of exploitation. She has also worked with Ministry of Gender as a volunteer to support national policy and capacity building initiatives, among other roles.
What others say
Ruth Akello (not real name), a child mother, says: “I came to know about Ms Ayot about two years ago when I was pregnant. I had been defiled, but was scared of telling my parents who were very angry with me. I was able to go back to school because of her.”
Timothy Kizito, a headmaster at Kiiso Primary School in Luwero, says: “Many children in this school walk for about 10 kilometres to come to school so they are at risk of defi lement. However, through ACODEV, some of the children have learnt about their rights.”