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When Tabitha Mpamira-Kaguri began teaching elementary school students in rural Uganda, she learned that an 11-year-old student of hers had been raped by a 35-year old man.
She then learned that a 5-year-old girl in the nearby village had been raped and infected with HIV by her grandfather. Then a girl in a neighboring village came forward to reveal that she had been raped repeatedly by her father since she was 4 years old.
The stories kept coming — and none of the survivors had received any form of justice.
The scale of sexual violence seemed overwhelming and it was made even worse by the fact that local law enforcement was doing little to stop it.
“I learned that a victim in Uganda has to pay for the police to make an arrest and for medical as well as counseling services,” Mpamira-Kaguri recently told Global Citizen. “Being a survivor myself and having two girls of my own, I couldn’t let this cycle of sexual trauma continue.”
So she started the EDJA Foundation — named for her mother Edith and mother-in-law Janey, both survivors of domestic violence — to fight sexual violence, provide health care and counseling for victims, and reform the systems that foster cultures of impunity and sexism throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
That was in 2015 — now Mpamira-Kaguri is the winner of the 2018 Waislitz Global Citizen’s Choice Award, which includes a $50,000 grant to further her organization’s objectives.
“It is a personal issue for me and a serious public health and human rights problem with both short- and long-term consequences on women's physical, mental, and sexual and reproductive health,” she said. “Whether sexual violence occurs in the context of an intimate partnership, within the larger family or community structure, or during times of conflict, it is a deeply violating and painful experience for the survivor.”
How Does EDJA Work?
Similar to the #MeToo movement, EDJA works to break the silence around sexual violence in sub-Saharan Africa.
Through public advocacy efforts including radio shows, advertisements, and community meetings, EDJA staff members and volunteers teach victims of sexual violence that it’s possible to come forward with stories of abuse and that it can be the first step toward healing, achieving justice, and ending patterns of abuse.
Since local police stations are often dismissive of sexual violence charges, Mpamira-Kaguri said, and because outlets for help sometimes don’t exist, many of the girls and women she meets are unaware that coming forward is an option.
EDJA works to fill those gaps by setting up outposts for women and girls to be able to report instances of sexual violence.
Once the crime is reported, the survivors are provided medical care, including rape exams that can definitely prove an allegation and counseling sessions to overcome trauma. EDJA also pressures local law enforcement to punish offenders.
As people report their stories, it generates a cultural momentum and over time, sexual violence becomes less common, Mpamira-Kaguri said.
But there are episodes of backlash that slow progress.
“The biggest challenge has been getting the community to fully understand and get behind this initiative, especially men,” Mpamira-Kaguri said. “We have had a few families get threatened for reporting.”
When victims of sexual violence face repercussions for coming forward, it can deter other people from coming forward.
But as EDJA continues its work, the organization is confronting and dismantling this resistance. And as sexual violence declines, women and communities are beginning to prosper.
“There’s an undeniable link between poverty and sexual violence,” Mpamira-Kaguri said. “Sexual violence can jeopardize a person’s economic well-being, often leading to homelessness, unemployment, interrupted education and health, mental health, and other daily stressors and struggles. In turn, living without one’s basic needs met can increase a person’s risk for sexual victimization.”
With the funds from the Waislitz Global Citizen Citizen’s Choice Award, EDJA will expand its efforts to reach more victims of sexual violence.
“I want to do my part to ensure that the future generation of girls and women do not have to worry about being violated,” Mpamira-Kaguri said.