*Content Warning: this article discusses sexual assault*
Faridah leads a group of girls in Kampala who are committed to making their city safer. At night, the dimly lit streets are putting girls' lives in danger. "Where my friend was killed, there is now light," Faridah says with a mixture of sadness and pride.
The 18-year old lives with her family and new born baby in the slums of Kampala. Every evening at around 6pm, she makes her way to the centre of the Ugandan capital to sell chips at a busy roundabout. The journey to reach her low-income job is fraught with danger.
"I only have to walk a kilometre, but I encounter obstacles at every turn. Drunk taxi drivers harass and try to touch me, when I refuse their advances, they can become aggressive and shout abuse at me for weeks."
The biggest dangers, however, are closer to home, in slums, especially after midnight when Faridah comes home from work. "There is no light. I walk alone along abandoned car scrap yards and through dark, quiet alleys. There are abandoned houses that have been squatted by gangs and every time I pass them at night they make me incredibly scared."
This fear comes from ongoing experiences of harassment, abuse and a terrfying near-miss that took the life of Faridah's friend. "A few weeks ago, we found the body of a woman who had been attacked a few metres from my house. I have been assaulted several times and a year ago, when I was four months pregnant, I was walking in the street with a friend when a gang of drug dealers attacked us. Fortunately, I was able to escape, but not my friend. She was raped in this alley and killed. I can still hear her screaming in my head.”
Her face darkens as she recalls this memory and Faridah looks ten years older. Soon though, her fighting spirit takes over.
“With Plan International, we formed a group of young people. I became the president. Together, we go through what is problematic and look for solutions in the neighbourhood. In the alley where my friend was attacked, there is now light. It was one of my neighbours who installed the lighting.”
The youth group have also helped improve hygiene and strengthened the community’s wooden bridge. "When it rained a lot, it was impossible for us to cross these bridges, so we have to make an even more dangerous detour. Many girls do not go to school or work when it rains, because they are too scared. This makes them even more vulnerable in the long run.”
To avoid this, Faridah and the other group members help girls increase their self-confidence. "We also learn to anticipate the danger. We avoid places where no one can see us or hear us and travel alone as little as possible. We also now complain to the police when we are abused. Recently, a man pushed and struck me because I told him to leave me alone - I reported him to the police, but before that, I would have let that go by without saying anything."
Despite her newfound strength, Faridah is often still scared, but she refuses to let her life be defined by fear. With a determined look in her eye, she walks every day to her place of work with so much confidence in her step that most men now leave her alone.
She has a new mantra which she repeats to anyone who wants, or needs, to hear it:
I am Faridah. And everyone must respect me.
About Plan International’s Safer Cities Project
In five cities (Cairo, Delhi, Hanoi, Lima and Kampala) where girls often feel at risk, Plan International is bringing together communities to transform neighbourhoods into safe places where girls are respected and can go to school or work without fear of violence. Safe spaces have been created where girls can go and their needs are listened to. They are taught safety in public places and how to react to harassment. In the long run, this leads to social and economic changes which not only benefit girls, but also boys. Gender equality is the goal.