The first time Lydia Jean Akite was deployed to Bidibidi Refugee Settlement, she was seven months pregnant.
“The road trip took nine hours,” Akite said. “It was difficult to go through the journey with swollen feet and the discomfort of being pregnant. What gave me the zeal to push on was knowing so many children were coming in, and the majority of them were unaccompanied. I felt I had to sacrifice my comfort for theirs."
Akite arrived at Bidibidi in August of 2016. As a child protection specialist with World Vision Uganda, Akite was sent to the camp to respond to the influx of South Sudanese refugees pouring across the border. At the time, more than 1,000 people were crossing into the country every day – the majority of whom were women and children.
“Refugees were coming both during the day and throughout the night” Akite said. “So many of them were children arriving alone. I couldn’t imagine that children had left their homes and crossed into other countries by themselves, vulnerable and without food.”
Akite and her colleagues helped address refugees’ basic needs, providing them with hot meals, blankets, clothes and other essential items immediately upon their arrival. They connected those who were particularly vulnerable, including unaccompanied children, to specialised services and support. Akite also provided staff with technical support to ensure children were receiving comprehensive care.
Akite left Bidibidi to give birth – but eight months later, she was back on the field.
“I had to leave my children, aged 3 years and 8 months, for 1.5 years,” Akite said. “I was encouraged to know that my children had all they needed and I had to reach out to those that were still in need and support them to get a better life. I packed my bags and headed to Bidibidi.”
On her second assignment, Akite focused on children at risk of abuse, sexual exploitation and violence. By 2017, the settlement was home to hundreds of thousands of refugees. Though they were now safe from the violence fracturing South Sudan, in Bidibidi, they faced a new set of complex challenges. Akite supported a project that aimed to mitigate those challenges, which was funded by the End Violence Fund from April 2018 to March 2019.
Akite was the only female project manager among dozens of men. Akite's leadership – and sacrifices – helped the project change the lives of thousands.
“One particular child hasn’t left my memory,” Akite said. “Mary* was raped by someone in her community and became pregnant soon after. Caseworkers from the project worked with the police to remove and arrest the perpetrator – but Mary felt guilty. The arrest created a clash between the families, and she felt like she had betrayed her community.”
Sometimes, in South Sudan, pre-marital pregnancy is addressed by marrying the child off – even if the father is a perpetrator of rape. Project caseworkers refused to allow that to happen and worked with both Mary and her community to help them understand that sexual abuse is unacceptable.
“We kept talking to Mary, the family and her community, and supported Mary throughout her pregnancy,” Akite said. “We supported prenatal visits and after birth, enrolled her in another part of the project, which helped young people begin and sustain income-generation activities. Over time, Mary regained her confidence, telling us that once her child gets a bit older, she would go back to school.”
Mary was one of just 750 teenage mothers and adolescents reached by the project. Like many of the young women engaged in the course, she brought her baby to tailoring lessons, caring for her son while she learned to sew.
Today, Akite is the Child Protection Technical Lead for World Vision Uganda. She still travels to West Nile in Uganda regularly, ensuring programmes are reaching the most vulnerable, staff are equipped to provide support, and organisations coordinate their efforts to help children.
On World Humanitarian Day, we join the global community in recognising women like Akite and their commitment to ending violence against children, changing lives and communities in the process.
*child’s name has been changed to protect her identity