Breaking the Silence
At Nyumanzi refugee settlement in northern Uganda, where the sound of families preparing food hangs on the hazy, late-afternoon air, 18-year-old Suzan Yar Agot is making her rounds in a neighbourhood known as Block C. Once upon a time these afternoon strolls were aimless, an attempt to stave off the boredom of refugee life. Now Suzan walks with purpose, having found a way to help her community.
Suzan is one of 40 refugee volunteers – nearly all youth – working to encourage more refugees to report and help prevent sexual and gender-based violence.
"People come to tell me their problems because they need help and they know I can help," she says. "I inform youth to change their culture and be aware of what is bad and what is good. Forced marriage is there, and defilement of children. Our people are not educated, but now they are changing. At first they didn't know, but I talk to them and change their minds."
The project dates back to late 2013, when the United States Government announced funding for a new, three-year initiative with UNHCR aimed at preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies around the world. Called "Safe from the Start," it is helping to ensure that prevention is included as an essential, life-saving intervention from the start of an emergency.
Beyond working on the 'Safe from the Start' project, Suzan spends time every day with separated and unaccompanied children at Nyumanzi settlement, trying to help them leave behind the bad memories of war. "I tell them that here in Uganda they are safe, and I tell them to go to school if there is any school," she says.
Suzan understands their struggle all too well – she was one of a number of children dropped off in Uganda for safety by their parents who then returned home. In Suzan's case, her mother brought her to Uganda when she was just 17, first to stay with her aunt, then later on her own.
"I tell them that here in Uganda they are safe, and I tell them to go to school if there is any school."
Suzan's mother is a soldier in the South Sudanese army, and her father was killed in tribal fighting over cattle back in South Sudan when she was younger. Her mother stayed for just one month in the refugee settlement before going back to South Sudan – Suzan has not heard from her since then.
Gazing down at her hands to hide the tears, she says: "I cannot go with her to the army, and I can't control her to not go."
Suzan dreams of becoming a "somebody." She explains: "I want to know everything: what is bad, what is good. I would like to be a doctor to save lives." But for now this remains a dream. With her mother gone and no relatives around, Suzan has nobody to pay school fees so she can continue her secondary education in Uganda.
"Life is boring to me because I'm not studying," she says. "Being in 'Safe from the Start' saved my life – if I wasn't in 'Safe from the Start' I could end up married very easily."
"Being in 'Safe from the Start' saved my life."
Her job is not always easy: she faces criticism and sometimes abuse from older members of the community, mainly men, who consider it their right to force daughters and sisters into marriage, and who are slow to change their opinions.
"They use the girls like an asset for marriage," says Suzan. "Like when men of 45 come and say they can marry a girl of 15, and we tell them they can't and they are not happy."
"Women are suffering in our culture," she adds. "They have no power. Men are the ones who have power and women are not educated."
One woman at Nyumanzi who has found herself at risk is Awol Deng*. She came to Suzan when the brother of her late husband tried to force her to re-marry against her will. He threatened to take away her children and even kill her if she didn't do as he said. Thanks to Suzan's intervention, she is now safe in a UNHCR protection house away from the settlement. "God helped me to get good people," Awol says. "I went in search of someone who could help me and I got those people."
Awol came to Suzan's home, but Suzan finds most of the people she helps during her walks through the settlement – stopping to chat, finding out the news and keeping an eye out for potential problems.
As Suzan steps carefully past a family's cooking pots, equipped with her notebook, a pen and a smile, she says: "There are not many things youth can get involved in, and 'Safe from the Start' is one. Before, I used to go and play games. But now I am too busy."
*Name changed for protection reasons