News

In Uganda, surviving rape and child marriage one plait at a time

16 October 2019
Irene Asibazuyo described hairdressing as the "magic" skill that helped her overcome trauma and earn a living. © UNICEF/Adriko

ODRAMACAKU, Uganda – Christmas is one of the busiest times of the year for beauty salons in this small town in Uganda’s northern Arua District. Local women want to look their best for the holidays. For 16-year-old Irene Asibazuyo, it means that she will make a little more money. 

Unlike other children her age, she is a hairdresser.

Since he had raped me, I knew that no man would ever take me as his wife.

Irene is busy plaiting hair instead of going to class. She was enrolled in primary school and enjoyed studying mathematics, social studies and English until her childhood ended abruptly in 2017, when she was raped by a man who later vanished during a visit to her uncle in nearby South Sudan. 

“In my culture, when a man rapes you, they must take you as their wife,” Irene explained. “Otherwise, your family risks being cursed or struck by a bad omen.”

She found herself at a crossroads: “I could not go back home because I knew I would be ridiculed by my peers and my own relatives. Instead, I went to the man’s home. I explained the incident to his parents, who advised me to stay. Since he had raped me, I knew that no man would ever take me as his wife.”

Cross-border rescue

While I was living in that home, I thought about my friends. All I did was cry.


Irene now regularly attends community dialogues and campaigns
against child marriage. © UNICEF/Adriko

Irene felt stranded, scared, confused and abused. She stayed at the man’s home for a week, but he never returned. Yet according to her culture, her marriage had already begun. 

“While I was living in that home, I thought about my friends," she said. "All I did was cry, and I could not eat. I used to fetch water among other chores, and I worried about my future.”

Irene's situation only started to change when her parents across the border learned about the End Child Marriage campaign, implemented by World Vision with support from the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage

The campaign aims to educate girls, their parents and other community members on the dangers of child marriage. It is also encourages them to identify and report cases of violence against children. 

Irene’s parents and a UNICEF-trained social worker crossed over the border with South Sudan to rescue her, defying cultural taboos to support their daughter.

Learning a “magic” skill

Today, Irene still lives with the traumatic memories of the attack. She dropped out of formal education, but decided to apply for a job at the salon. 

“As I feared being called names like ‘married woman’ or ‘raped girl', I chose to pursue hairdressing instead,” she recalled. She described hairdressing as the "magic" skill that helped her overcome trauma and earn a living. 

As I feared being called names like ‘married woman’ or ‘raped girl', I chose to pursue hairdressing instead.


Today, Irene still lives with the traumatic memories of the attack.
© UNICEF/Adriko

Irene now regularly attends UNICEF and UNFPA-supported community dialogues and campaigns against child marriage, and is seen as a role model in her community. She mentors child brides who have been abandoned with their children and teaches them to plait hair.

“I share the knowledge I have and what I know,” she reflected. “I am happy that they will be able to earn some money to look after their children. I encourage them to work and not stay at home.”

Inspiring other girls

Irene also encourages her younger siblings to go to school, and provides the necessary support. 

“I want my siblings to complete school so that they can live a better life than me,” she said. “I sometimes feel disappointed that I did not return to school.”

I want my siblings to complete school so that they can live a better life than me.

However, she’s glad that she learned a trade. And she turned it into a platform to support other girls.

One day she wishes to return to school, but not in her village.

“I do not want my peers to laugh at me because of what happened. I will go to another district for my education, and learn how to write and speak English.”

                                                          – Proscovia Nakibuuka Mbonye, UNICEF Uganda