By ChildVoice staff member Petek Altug

The dignity, value, and worth of all women has always been something close to my heart. Even before my college days at Wellesley, there were knots in the pit of my stomach and pain in my chest when I saw other women, especially young ones, mistreated, abused, oppressed, violated, or verbally belittled by others, all because they were “just a woman.” Yet living and working at the Lukome Center alongside young girls who are now teen mothers, whose entire lives have been filled with deep suffering from such negativity toward women, brings the inner discontentment to an entirely new level.

This is why marching alongside the current ChildVoice girls during the International Women’s Day parade in Gulu – walking stride by stride with Tracy, a colleague and former ChildVoice graduate, as well as Susan, one of our head counselors – brought up new emotions of hope and joy as we crossed through the streets of Gulu, marching towards the stadium for a day of dancing, poems, and an inspiring speech by the main speaker. 

These girls are not anonymous girls I am hearing about on the radio or in newsletters from IJM and WorldVision. These girls are not just photos I have on a magnet on my fridge from an organization that fights to bring hope, freedom, and life to women trapped in exploitation, slavery, or abusive situations. These girls are my beloved sisters and my friends: they are Susan, Concy, Scovia, Beatrice, Angela, Eunice, Sharon, Vicky, Ketty, and Gladys. Each has a story, each being a fighter, each courageous enough to stand up and march through a city filled with people who think their lives are hopeless now that they have become “child mothers” or were forced to be “child brides.” 

And yet, we were not alone. We were marching across town with many other Acholi women and men who believe there is dignity and there is worth, and it is through fighting to bring up their fellow women and give them the chance of life with hope that they deserve.

It’s one thing for me to march in a Women’s Day Parade in my home country, where, while many things have changed over the past few decades, there are still things to be sought after for equality and justice toward women. Yet, to march in Gulu, among the Acholi and with my ChildVoice sisters, was a completely humbling privilege I never could have imagined or created. Standing for women’s rights and freedom is a different thing when you are walking with those who have suffered greatly from the oppression of not being seen as having identity or worth every single day of their entire lives. 

My sisters are girls who were taken advantage of from an early age, barely having hit puberty, and who became mothers for the first time at the ages of 14–17. They come from a culture where daughters can often be seen as a “blessing” at birth for the family because they look forward to the day they will get money for her marriage through the “bride price,” the same ritual that keeps women trapped and often mistreated or abused by those who have “paid” for them to become their wives. My sisters grew up in a culture in a time where war was rampant and all the “norms” changed due to the situations of broken families, lost family members, and crowded IDP camps.

I was proud to be marching with my sisters, knowing each of their stories and walking with hope alongside of them, knowing they are MOVING FORWARD. They are not taking the ‘No’ most of the culture around them has given them as an answer for their lives, but instead are taking small steps forward, just as it was in the parade; it was with small steps, one at a time, that we marched our way to the stadium. We could have given up, it might have felt long and hard to march in the heat of the African sun, but our destination was our goal and we were together as a family, walking and empowering one another with smiles, laughter, and unity of our spirits. This is the vision and work of CVI, but even more so, this is the work of God in their lives: restoring their hope, giving them courage, reclaiming their identities, sustaining them and giving them strength, one step at a time, reminding them that they are beloved and their lives have a purpose. 

That is something worth marching for. We stand and march for all women, but yesterday while marching, I was especially marching for the ChildVoice girls, past and present, and praying that one day there will be no need for ChildVoice as communities across the globe become places where girls are thriving on their own and being empowered to live the lives they have been designed and called to live in their full potential, with faith, strength, and dignity in all things.

Quote from the Main Speaker on International Women’s Day in Gulu, Uganda, on March 8, 2016:

“To eradicate poverty is to educate women. In communities where the girls and women are educated, the level of poverty decreases, in each house as well as across the country.”