Girl, 16, rescued after two years in slavery

A 16-year-old girl is now living in freedom following two years spent in servitude when she was controlled, beaten and abused.

Zada* was part of a large family, with nine siblings, all living under one roof in their rural Ugandan village. Their parents could not afford to send them to school.

When she was aged just 14, Zada’s father forced her to marry a man she had never met, against her will. Zada’s parents had recently separated and her father had made the arrangements before her mother could step in.

“Her innocent childhood was completely shattered,” Florence Soyekwo, Uganda Country Director at Hope for Justice, said.

Zada’s mother sought help from the local authority, the district police, a probation and social welfare officer, and the district officer in charge of family and children’s affairs.

Her daughter was eventually rescued from the marriage but to keep her from ‘shame’ in her home community, she was sent to live with her paternal aunt in another city, where she was employed as a housemaid.

Florence said: “Zada thought she had embarked on a new life. But her aunt treated her like a stranger. She was made to carry out hard labour, completing the family’s domestic work single-handedly. She was exploited. And she wasn’t paid. One day she was beaten so badly that she decided to run away, even though she had nowhere else to go.”

Zada fled to the streets, where she lived among other missing children until a stranger took her to a police station. The officers referred her to a Hope for Justice Lighthouse – one of our short-term aftercare facilities – in summer 2019.

At the Lighthouse, Zada received counselling, vocational training, life skills, and participated in activities like therapy singing and sport.

Zada said: “I was very grateful that Hope for Justice staff at the Lighthouse stood by me to help me see that change is possible. I was very thankful for them.”

Aged 15, Zada was reintegrated back with her mother, equipped with the skills to become a tailor or seamstress, and to help care for her siblings. She had grown in confidence, was more aware of her rights, and was ready to enroll as an apprentice to continue her vocational training.

But her dream was short-lived again. Just a few months after her reunification with her family, her mother remarried and moved to another community, leaving Zada without anywhere to live near the business where she was carrying out her apprenticeship.

Zada lived with her brother but became increasingly vulnerable without parental protection; there were numerous occasions when men in her village would try to ‘grab’ her as she fetched water or firewood.

When her father tried to arrange another marriage for her, Zada, having been educated by Hope for Justice, refused, even though she was threatened.

She moved to live with her mother, only to find she was rejected by this new family, who asked her to return to her own village. Leaders in the community were planning to uproot Zada and send her back to her village when Hope for Justice staff arrived to help.

Zada said: “I couldn’t believe that you came all the way from the city just to look for me after hearing about what was happening. I am so grateful to you for your love and concern. I will surely study and also hope to become somebody.”

The charity had learned that Zada was in a turbulent situation and stepped in to provide support, arranging for her to continue her tailor training at a boarding vocational institution.

They also arranged for her to move in with a foster family during the holidays.

Zada’s mother said: “You do not know how much you have rescued my daughter and how much you have helped me. I have had many sleepless nights because of her situation; especially seeing that the opportunity she was offered to train was just slipping out of her hands because of situations out of her control. I was very worried about her future.

“Thank you very much, God sent you to us like our angels at the right time.”

During the COVID-19 lockdown, Zada is staying with her foster family. Once the quarantine is lifted, she will have about two years of study and training before officially starting her career.

Her apprenticeship is teaching her to knit sweaters and other clothing items, make liquid soap and develop business skills, among other practical work.

Florence said: “Zada’s future is very promising. She is very passionate about tailoring and is very confident that, when she completes her training, she will find work, earn a living and help to support her siblings.”

*Name changed to protect identity of victim