Irene stands tall and proud in front of her home in Te-Okutu village in Amuru district, Gulu, northern Uganda.
The 42-year-old mother-of-nine points across to a field – “her” field, she is keen to emphasise – abundant with maize and vegetables.
The crop is going to be good this year.
It is rainy season, but after a heavy downpour earlier the sun is beating down. Two of Irene’s shy young grandchildren clutch at her legs, and mischievously try to hide under her traditional dress. Chickens are busy pecking at seeds on the dry ground, and a herd of noisy goats wander around.
“My life is much better now,” soft-spoken Irene says, looking across at her land. “Because I feel empowered, I have no more fear”.
Then Irene casts her eyes down, and her voice lowers. She is about to recount her very personal story, one of horrific abuse.
“It is important I tell my story,” she says with a whisper. “I want other women to know that there is help for them too.”
In 2006 Irene lost her husband at the end of the war which devastated northern Uganda, resulting in death, hundreds of thousands of internal displacements and the systematic abuse of women and children.
She moved with her five children from a camp in Pabbo County in Amuru District, and ended up in Te-Okutu village, where she claimed land.
She started a relationship with another man who moved into Irene’s house and they jointly farmed the land. In the early years, things were ok, and they had four children together.
But then the abuse started.
“He started to complain that he had to take care of my late husband’s children, and he wanted them to go back to our original home, where we lived during the war” she said.
But Irene refused. “I gave birth to these children, and it was my responsibility to take care of them.”
As things deteriorated her partner started to reject even his own children. He insisted that any food from the land should only be for him and not shared with Irenes late husband’s children, or his own.
Said Irene: “He separated the food. He would buy meat and ask me to cook it and he would eat it alone. Every time I tried giving the same food to the children, he would throw it on the ground and step on it.”
The situation got worse over the following months and one day her partner gathered all the clothes and household utensils in the hut and set it ablaze. Everything she owned was destroyed.
She went to the local leaders, who told her as this was a criminal offence she had to go to the police. But the police demanded money before they would pursue a case. Irene had no money, everything was gone.
Nowhere to go
When Irene returned to the village her partner chased Irene and the children away, and they sought refuge with neighbours.
To earn enough to feed the children Irene worked tending her neighbours gardens in the following weeks. They had nothing, not even a change of clothes.
When Irene returned her partner attacked her again.
“Because of the beatings and the trauma, I couldn’t sleep at night. I reached the point where I stopped eating.”
Finally, a local woman told Irene about ActionAid. With her youngest child she walked several kilometres to the ActionAid office to get help.
“When I reached there, I was so dirty with torn clothes. The baby was naked as everything was burnt in the house and there was nothing to cover him with. But the welcome they gave to me was great…they gave me food and clothes and I started feeling love.”
Irene and her baby stayed at the ActionAid shelter in Amuru for a week where she got counselling and advice from ActionAid’s legal advisor. “I did not feel the inner pain I used to feel. I was welcomed there.”
With support from ActionAid Irene also went to hospital for treatment for her wounds.
And ActionAid provided legal support to get her partner to court to answer for his crimes.
When Irene returned to her village, her children were so happy to see her. “I saw the joy on everyone’s face.”
Slowly Irene started to get better. “I started doing everything again. Eating and dressing myself and minding my children.”
Thanks to support from ActionAid, eventually Irene’s husband was arrested and charged.
A new life for Irene
Knowing she has support from ActionAid she feels empowered.
“I am confident and empowered – even after what happened I have peace of mind and I am with my children.”
Said Irene: “ActionAid has given me peace of mind. I sleep without fear, I do my own stuff without any man having an influence. I am in charge.”
Learn more about how you can donate to a shelter.
ActionAid Uganda: Gender-based violence (GBV) facts:
- ActionAid has ten GBV shelters in Uganda
- ActionAid supported 36,481 GBV cases in the ten years from 2012 to 2022
- 16,057 cases were resolved through dispute resolution
- 1,319 cases were referred to courts
- Victims of GBV are given shelter, legal aid, counselling and first aid and medical support.
- ActionAid raises awareness about GBV, teenage pregnancies, women land rights and child marriage in the areas in which it works
- ActionAid trains and male champions and cultural and religious leaders about women and girls’ rights