Headlines like these would cause a public outcry in the UK today. But in the Mukono district, just east of Kampala, Uganda, they were nothing unusual. In fact, they were all too common: child abuse was just a part of everyday life.
However, three years ago, one man decided that enough was enough. He caught a vision of a community where children would suffer no longer. Where they would be kept safe, supported, nurtured and loved. That man was Pastor George Kaniike: a hard working church leader who believed passionately that things should and could be different in the area where he lived and worked.
Pastor George had been inspired by his experience of working with Viva’s partner network in Kampala, particularly their advocacy training on the importance of standing up for children’s rights and taking practical action to keep them safe. After what he learned through the network, George felt able to go back to his community and change it.
Returning to his church team with renewed vigor, George was determined to teach them how to protect children and share the valuable information he had gained. Together they began to formulate child protection policies and started putting them into action within his church and local community project. Now, that might have been where many people would have stopped. Making an impact in the immediate vicinity is probably all you can hope to achieve when you’re responsible for a busy parish; after all, there are only so many hours in the day.
But not George. His vision was much bigger. He began contacting community leaders and members from neighboring villages, to convince them to join his pursuit of a safe community for children, and his enthusiasm was contagious. Wherever he went to spread this message of hope, people were impressed by his passion and encouraged by his pragmatic approach to improving the lives of children. On one occasion, members of the community George visited were so excited by what he was teaching them about how to protect children that they insisted he stayed until after dark and begged him to come back and give them further training.
What started small steadily gathered momentum as more than 30 villages in the surrounding area came together and established child protection committees. These groups encouraged local people to look out for their neighbors’ children and report any concerns and any known cases of abuse, and Pastor George and his team are now well equipped to offer advice and refer cases to the relevant authorities quickly and efficiently. This combination of focused collaborative learning and action has begun to pay off with encouraging results. A total of eight people from the district who had previously abused children are now serving time in prison: a mother who beat, burned and broke her child’s hand and seven men who were convicted of child rape. They have been brought to justice and are facing punishment because the community is working together to create a safe environment for its children.
So, what is the secret of his success? Pastor George says, “Being a part of the network, learning from others and having their support has been vital. That is what gave me the confidence to believe that change was possible and the determination to make it happen.” Pastor George is not a charismatic powerhouse, a dynamic figurehead or a superhero. He is just an unassuming, faithful man who had a vision of hope and turned it into a practical reality in his district and beyond. His personal mission to make a difference for the children of Mukono has inspired and encouraged other community leaders to follow his example and put a structure in place that will ensure ongoing success.
This was clearly evident at the end of 2012 when a two-day conference organized by the network brought together a wide cross-section of the community including the police, local councilors and teachers. After discussing topics including community policing, child abuse, child protection, the Children’s Act and domestic violence, they went on to form a committee that is now overseeing the work of child protection in the Mukono area.
But perhaps the most visible legacy of Pastor George’s personal campaign is something that is more noticeable by its absence. Something that even people who haven’t heard about him can’t help but observe. The local newspapers don’t feature headlines about child abuse any more.