Those who made it back were shunned from their community—so Alice Achan built them a place to call home.
Alice Achan may run one of the most successful girls’ schools in Uganda today, but that’s because she knows firsthand what a monumental challenge it is for a young girl in her country to get an education. Achan, 41, grew up in a small Acholi-tribe village during the widespread murders, rapes, and kidnappings wrought by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla group led by Joseph Kony, in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result of the massacres and violence, Achan, one of 27 children born to a polygamist father, had to leave almost a dozen different schools during her childhood and teenage years.
If she had stayed in school, Achan risked being abducted by LRA rebels and forced to work in rebel camps as both free laborer and sex slave—the fate of so many girls. Yet Achan persevered by moving all over northern Uganda in pursuit of her high school degree. In 1996, she graduated at the age of 23.
The struggle to develop her academic skills and earn her degree prepared Achan for her life’s mission: to create a path to education for the girls of Uganda.
In her mid-twenties, Achan took on a role as a counselor in an Internally Displaced Persons camp in northern Uganda, a refuge for families whose homes and lives had been decimated by the LRA fighting. It was there that she came into contact with hundreds of female teens and understood the hardships they faced while trying to continue their education.
The teenage girls who had managed to escape from their LRA captives came to the camps traumatized. Many were forced into adulthood—the majority were either pregnant or toting newborns or toddlers, according to Achan. Their communities shunned them because of their association with the LRA rebels, despite knowing the girls had been kidnapped from their villages, often in full view of their trembling parents and older siblings. Most Ugandan schools would refuse to accept students who were pregnant or nursing. In addition, many of the girls, some as young as 12, felt conflicted about leaving their children, even after they were qualified to return to school. Few had access to child care, which left them saddled with babies, no support, and no access to academic life.
“I knew as soon as I saw the girls returning from camp that they needed a school that also offered a day care,” Achan says. “So many of the girls were brilliant. I knew they could really thrive if they had the right support.”
The war with the LRA has racked up devastating numbers, according to Human Rights Watch. At least 20,000 Ugandan children were abducted and more than 1.9 million people displaced from their homes between 1987–2006; since 2008, the LRA has abducted more than 4,000 people and displaced over 400,000. Those who did make it back home received little government assistance—and those who already had babies received no government-supported education, something that didn’t sit well with Achan.
“That moved me so much, because I knew they really needed to go back to school,” she says. “And I knew that was one way I could help them—by providing an education through which they could gain some empowerment.”
Achan decided in the early aughts that she would open a school with the main objective of providing education and vocational skills, as well as high-quality child care. Her grand vision attracted the attention of Eric Stover, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and faculty director of the Human Rights Center who was researching human-rights causes in Uganda at the time. The MacArthur Foundation and The Uganda Fund also took an interest in Achan’s work, helping her secure a $350,000 grant to build and run the school she envisioned.
In 2007, Achan opened the doors of the Pader Girls Academy, located in the northern Ugandan town of Pader. Consisting of just one school building and one dormitory for 46 students, the academy also had a child care center that was run by hired staff as well as volunteers from neighboring villages. Achan hand-selected the girls for the school, focusing on students who were not eligible to pursue an education in other institutions. No less than 80 percent of the students were mothers, and 10 percent were pregnant; the remaining 10 percent were girls deemed vulnerable to abduction or sexual violence, according to Achan.
One of most common statements she gets from students is that “their hope has been restored,” she says.
Once they were rejected by the community because they were former wives to LRA commanders. But because of the success they have achieved through education, they have won their community’s confidence.”
Achan’s academy focuses on teaching traditional subjects such as mathematics, English, and the sciences, as well as history, religion, education, and health science. Students also learn vocational skills such as hospitality catering and hotel management. To that end, the school opened Mega Ber, a bustling restaurant in Pader that serves visiting aid workers, and a guest house where the girls can hone their management and hospitality skills.
“It is quite decent,” says Achan with characteristic modesty, referring to the accommodations. “We offer good beds and good food. Ambassadors and government officials have stayed here.”
Today, Pader Girls Academy, now 250 students strong, is a national success story. Last year, its pupils ranked second in the district in national examinations, and graduates have gone on to top universities throughout the country. Achan shared the story of one student named Polline, who had been in LRA captivity for eight years before she made her way back to her village. During that bleak period away from her family, Polline suffered much loss, including the death of a yet-to-be-born baby that her LRA captor cut out of her womb. Achan offered her a place at the academy.
“Polline did so well in school—she was always number one,” says Achan. “She has become so outspoken and such an advocate for other girls.”
Indeed, Polline recently traveled to London, where she spoke to the British Parliament about the plight of girls and children still in the LRA’s captivity and received special recognition from former Prime Minister David Cameron. Today, she is enrolled in a top Ugandan university, where she is studying social work and human rights education.
Earlier this month, Pader Girls Academy also opened a new campus three hours away in the Acholi heartland, a region where the conflict continues to flare up.
Despite what the girls have been through, many have notably opted to forgive and forget in an effort to help others. Says Achan: “Our graduates are working as teachers and teaching in the very community where they were rejected.”
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Photos: Alice Achan