WHEN Sydney was plunged into a COVID-19 lockdown, Grace Arach felt an unsettling sense of deja vu.
She had been isolated from friends and family before. But the first time was much, much worse.
In 1995, at the age of 12, Grace was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, led by Joseph Kony. She was one of thousands of children kidnapped by the murderous guerrillas to become child soldiers.
“My life as a teenager was pretty much like living under lockdown, with nowhere to go and no one to turn to but my abusers,” she says.
“I call that time the Dark Age. I lived a miserable life where I did not have clean water to drink, food to eat, clothing, medication or parental support.”
Grace was snatched just a year after her own father was killed by the LRA, and forced to marry Kony’s second in command. He was a strongman called Otti Lagony, and he was 23 years her senior.
While the harrowing chapter of her life is over, Grace is now worried about the fallout of COVID-19 on vulnerable children around the world.
Children who are trapped at home with their abusers under lockdown. Children forced into marriage by desperate families who have lost their livelihoods.
“The most vulnerable children including those living in poverty, refugees or homeless on the streets are all at greater risk of abuse and violence especially as teachers and social workers have limited access to them. The pandemic has created an urgent need to empower children to report abuse and educate them on how to get help.”
World Vision is gravely concerned that COVID-19 threatens to not only directly affect children but increase child protection threats such as physical and sexual violence, exploitation and abuse, child marriage, child labour and gender-based violence.
18-year-old Tabassum* nearly became a victim of child trafficking. COVID-19 lockdowns are expected to increase this threat.
Australia’s biggest international humanitarian organisation estimates that globally at least four million more girls will be forced into child marriages over the next two years due to COVID-19 shocks - the majority in Africa.
Sub-Saharan Africa already had the highest levels of child marriage in the world, with 35 per cent of young women married before the age of 18.
She managed to escape the clutches of the LRA after five years in 2001, escaping in the middle of the night from a camp with two other child brides and their babies.
But she’s still haunted by her time in captivity, forced to fight the Ugandan army and trained in a special unit as one of Kony’s bodyguards. During those nightmarish five years, Grace was raped, shot in the breast, drank contaminated water or her own urine, ate boiled leaves and beaten by her husband.
Grace lost her childhood to her abusers and says children in developing nations must be protected.
“No matter if you have been kidnapped by guerrillas, or ‘sold’ to a family friend, child marriage needs to stop,” she says.
“Child marriage is child abuse. Child marriage is rape.”
After running for her life, Grace eventually ended up in World Vision’s Children of War Rehabilitation Centre in Uganda, setting her on a path for a new life.
World Vision continues to assist in the rehabilitation of former child soldiers, through facilities like this child transit centre in South Sudan.
When she walked through the door, her first question was: “Can I go to back to school right now?”
She recalls being told by staff: “But no one is at school now. It’s night.”
“But I was so upset that I had missed out on five years already, I felt I couldn’t wait a second longer. I wanted to be something, and I knew that to be something, I needed an education,” she says.
The next day she was enrolled in school, and would later realise her dream of going to university in Uganda and Australia.
The social workers at the rehabilitation centre inspired Grace to study a Bachelor of Social Work at the University of Sydney, after she moved to Australia.
Today, Grace works in early childhood intervention in Sydney, and loves helping others.
Her ultimate passion is to set up a charity to support and honour former child soldiers in Uganda, called Bedo Ki Gen, which is Ugandan for Living with Hope.
*Name changed to protect identity
A version of this article appeared in The New Daily
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