One Teacher and Survivor on a Mission to End Gender-Based Violence

Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Sylvia Wokuri, a Gender Based Violence survivor at the school where she works.
USAID’s Regional Health Integration to Enhance Services in Eastern Uganda Activity

Sylvia Wokuri is a 45-year-old survivor of domestic violence. She works as a primary school teacher in Mbale, Uganda, with a mission to keep girls and boys safe from violence.

While a teenager in rural Mbale, Sylvia experienced her parents’ divorce. With no secure social support, she lost her teen years to turmoil. “When my parents divorced, it was horrible,” says Sylvia. “Our family broke up. My siblings stayed with different relatives. It was brutal as a teenager trying to find a place in my community.”

Sylvia became pregnant and dropped out of school. She moved in with her boyfriend and gave birth to a baby girl. Before long, she was a mother of three with little money to support her family. To improve her situation, she decided to go back to school.

“My boyfriend was supportive at first,” Sylvia says. “I finished school, got my teacher diploma, and began working again. Life was good.” After a while, her boyfriend began to question her long working hours, and that is when the violence started. It was bad, but Sylvia stayed for the children. The beatings and angry outbursts never stopped. In fact, they increased.

A Universal Problem

According to a recent survey, 51 percent of Ugandan women and 52 percent of men have experienced physical violence. Additionally, 22 percent of women and 8 percent of men have experienced sexual violence.

With disproportionate impacts on women and girls, gender-based violence—including emotional, physical and sexual violations—reaches every corner of the world. The numbers of women and girls affected by this problem are staggering. According to the World Health Organization, one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way, most often by someone she knows. One in five women is sexually abused as a child.

Gender-based violence is a violation of individual women’s and girls’ rights. The impunity enjoyed by perpetrators, and the fear generated by their actions, has lifelong effects on women, girls and boys as well as on communities. Gender-based violence is an outcome of societal norms defining male and female roles and the interrelationship therein—all of which can severely impact life opportunities for women and girls in education, livelihood and leadership. It also takes a heavy toll on a global level, stunting the contributions that women and girls can make to international development, peace, and progress.

Women and girls are at the core of USAID’s Regional Health Integration to Enhance Services in Eastern Uganda (or RHITES-E). The activity mainstreams gender interventions and helps districts to deliver high-quality screening and referral services both in health facilities and in communities. RHITES-E targets transformation of gender relations through interventions that examine and challenge power imbalances in families, health services and communities that undermine women and girls’ livelihoods and contribute to violence and poor health outcomes. Through community education and mobilization by village health teams and youth champions, RHITES-E reaches in-school youth and links them to health facilities for care and support. Women like Sylvia are crucial to helping young survivors of violence regain their lives.

A Breaking Point

Sylvia is one of the few survivors of gender-based violence comfortable enough to publicly share her experience, although it took her time to overcome the self-stigma and pain.

When she was in the abusive relationship, Sylvia was fearful for her young girls who were blossoming into teenagers and longtime witnesses to the violence between their parents. She wanted to show them healthy relationships and provide them with good models for their own future relationships. According to the Uganda Demographic Health Survey of 2016, five in 10 women neither sought help nor told anyone about the violence they experienced. Sylvia felt she had to do something, but the thought of negative reactions from her relatives and community who knew nothing about her troubled relationship forced her to stay, all the while thinking her boyfriend would change.

He did not change. Instead, the violence got worse.

“One time during an outburst episode with my boyfriend, he pulled a gun on me,” Sylvia says. “This was my breaking point and I had to stay and fight or leave with my children. I chose to leave for the sake of my sanity and for my children’s safety.’ First, she recorded a statement with the police in her community, but no action was taken to address her case. She and her girls then moved in with a female relative who offered them a safe place to stay. Sylvia started making and selling snacks to supplement her income. She later found herself a house and settled to raise her young family as a single mother. The school where she was teaching continued to support her, and she kept her teacher job amidst all the turmoil.

Adjusting to life as a single mother was not easy, but Sylvia kept pushing.  With the extra income from her snack business, she went back to school for a post-graduate diploma and is now a primary school teacher in Mbale. With her education and skills, Sylvia understood her self-worth and quickly learned that self-confidence is key to women’s empowerment. When a woman truly realizes her worth and can publicly act on that confidence, she says, the world changes for her. Today, she uses this knowledge to advocate for a safe education for the girls and boys she teaches. And her three daughters—now in their mid 20s—are thrilled that Sylvia is a self-assured woman and their mother.

Sylvia embraces opportunities to work with RHITES-E and to take action to end violence against women and girls. As a peer collaborator, she uses her voice and experience to inform and raise awareness about gender-based violence among her students. Sylvia is currently pursuing her master’s degree in social work. Her goal is to use her experience and passion to reach out and empower more women and girls in her community. She also aims to empower girls to stay in school and complete their studies.

“My joy is seeing students confident and staying in school to study. When a girl or boy finishes school, nothing can shake the foundation that s/he builds for a solid future. I encourage my students to speak up and fight to stay in school,” Sylvia says. “Know your worth. Stay in school. Secure your future.”

Last updated: November 28, 2018

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