Faith leaders: A strong force to strengthen child protection systems
By: Derrick Kyatuka - Communications Officer, Uganda Refugee Response
The rising sun glimmers over Yangani cluster in Zone 5 of Bidibidi refugee settlement, bringing with it a burst of activities. As the day gets warmer, children, who are the early risers in the home, come out of the house and strategically position themselves in the direction of the sun. Sunbathing is a routine for them –no wonder they look healthy and well-nourished.
As they leap back and forth in the mud brick and grass-thatched hut, their father is gearing up for his day. Unbothered by their movements and his little son’s request to be carried, his serious face reflects the verve with which he is preparing for the task ahead of him.
He casts his gaze around the compound and checks the time on his small phone before disappearing into his hut. A few moments later, he comes out, dressed in a grey clerical collar t-shirt, grey trousers, and a black pair of shoes with a black bag hanging on his right shoulder. In his left hand are notebooks and a Bible and, in his right, —a portable hand sanitiser bottle.
He sits on a local chair in front of the doorway and neatens his hair and thereafter silently reads verses from his well-kept Bible. He eats breakfast, racing against time. He then dashes his hand into the black bag and fishes out an orange face mask. He perfectly fits it, before placing his notebooks and Bible in the bag. He is set for the day’s activities.
Before he leaves his compound, a group of seven men and three women dressed in white t-shirts arrive in his compound. They seem to be joining him on the mission. They exchange pleasantries and he briefs them.
“Today is not any different from the several community outreaches we have conducted in the past. We shall move door to door checking on the well-being of children, and listen to issues affecting our fellow refugees”, he says.
Pastor Willison Agele is leading a Community Hope Action Team (CHAT) on a community outreach mission. The team follows a narrow village path that leads them to the first homestead. In the home is a 10-year-old Morris, suffering from hydrocephalus. The visitors seem well-known to Morris, as he gives them a welcoming smirk.
“How are you, Morris?”, asks Willison. Morris can hardly talk but his body language reflects happiness. “I pray for you always my friend. I feel joy every time I come to visit you and see you happy.” Willison asks the mother about Morris’ condition. He prays for the family before leaving for the next home.
“When you visit some of these families, you feel compassionate. On top of their vulnerability, parents have to take care of a child with this serious condition. It takes extraordinary love for refugee parents to care for such a child”, says Willison.
On their way to the next home, the mid-morning sun gets warmer but this does little to slow their energy. Beads of sweat roll off their foreheads into their face masks as they walk home to home.
“As a World Vision Child Protection Committee (CPC) member and a parent, I feel obliged to be part of the cause of ensuring that children grow up in a child-friendly environment. Most children are currently at risk due to COVID-19, but with our monitoring, we are well placed to provide wise guidance”, says Julius Malet, a CHAT member.
A child is their main focus during the monitoring visits. They follow-up on unaccompanied children, separated children, the elderly, and people living with disabilities on a weekly basis.
“Cases of violence against children have recently increased and it is now our responsibility as a team to talk to parents and their children to live in harmony. Through our intervention, we have started to register change. Most of the issues have been solved through guidance and counselling of both parents and children”, says Betty Kiden, another team member.
Faith in action
World Vision, under a three-year Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BPRM)-funded a child protection programme alongside the International Rescue Committee (IRC), is training faith leaders to protect children against all forms of abuse in Bidibidi settlement. Faith leaders like Willison play a vital role in community development especially at a time like this when children are at risk due to the pandemic. People look at them as their source of hope and comfort during crises.
“I use Bible lessons to promote behaviour change in my community. I also help children to know their rights and responsibilities. I encourage meaningful child participation”, says Willison.
Involving faith leaders in the project implementation has changed community attitudes towards unacceptable behaviour.
“Some tribes believe that a girl must be married off the moment they experience their first period. Others think it’s only girls supposed to do work in the home. These are some of the behaviours we continue to change during community outreaches,” he adds.
Swaib Juruga, a Muslim leader in the host community, says integrating faith leaders into child protection has strengthened child protection systems in his community. “I have noticed behavioural change among parents. Before, they used to give corporal punishments to their children and also overexploit them, especially the girls. All has stopped because when we talk to parents, they listen.”
So far, 49 faith leaders from various denominations (such as sheiks, priests and pastors) from both the refugee and host community have been trained by World Vision to use their platforms and influence to end violence against children.
“Faith leaders are among the most respected figures in causing change in many communities. Two hundred and fifty CHATs have reached out to 6,965 people within their communities with child protection messages”, says Job Auruke, the Child Protection Coordinator.
As World Vision stays on the course to end all forms of violence against refugee children, involvement of faith leaders creates a bigger platform to influence behaviour change towards the well-being of children.