Shadow In Their Eyes
Retrak’s work started over twenty years ago as a football club called the Tigers Club Project in Uganda. This club provided street children with the opportunity for play and escape their problems. Since becoming CEO, I have been to Uganda five times visiting Retrak projects. We have two centres for boys but our first centre for girls, Bulamu, opened just three years ago. The girls were less visible on the street and as we built up the work of Bulumu we learnt why.
There are cultural factors that lead to girls living on the streets. Girls are much more likely to be sent by their families to work as domestic servants in the city; sometimes in the homes of relatives. For families in rural areas struggling to feed and educate their children, the offer of a job and accommodation for their child can look very attractive, especially if the payment comes directly to them. The reality for the child is that too often they are treated as a lower form of life; forced to work from early morning to late at night, victims of modern slavery. They lose their education and all chance of training for the jobs that they may have aspired to. Often far from home, these girls are denied the love of a family environment that a child needs so badly for healthy development. They are beaten and sometimes sexually abused. Girls seeking to escape this misery are torn between returning to the family home filled with shame and surviving on the streets alone.
There are limited choices for young girls living on the street in Uganda, despite estimates that 25% of street children are girls. On more than one occasion staff at Retrak’s centres have found that shy, withdrawn boys they could not get to speak were in fact girls in disguise. With nowhere to turn, girls on the street are particularly vulnerable to further abuse and often end up in commercial sex work; just another form of modern or not so modern slavery. Bulumu takes in girls rescued from modern slavery and life on the street. Many are referrals from the local police and often would be held in police stations for their own safety if we did not take them in. Our staff start the long process of counselling, helping the girls to tell their stories to access specialist help and prepare them to go back to a safe, caring family life. This is not easy as victims of sexual abuse carry a stigma but work with families and communities helps to change attitudes and ensures that the girl can have a secure loving future while understanding that the scars will be very deep.