It all began with a simple prayer in a women’s fellowship. Now Annette and her team are tackling the blight of prostitution and the sexual exploitation of children in Uganda.
If you live in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, it’s hard to miss the city’s prostitutes. ‘I’d always driven around the city and seen them but, somehow, they felt detached from us,’ remembers Annette Kirabira.
Annette is the executive director of Rahab Uganda, an NGO dedicated to helping girls and young women affected by prostitution and human trafficking. ‘Back then, they were nameless and faceless to us.’
When I ask how the women and girls came to mean so much more, Annette answers ‘I like to say we prayed a dangerous prayer.’
That prayer was offered up at a women’s prayer fellowship in 2005. ‘We were praying, “Lord, what exactly would you want us to do in our city?”’ The answer didn’t take long to materialise…
Two daughters of a fellowship member experienced a disturbing scene one night in the capital.
‘They heard screaming and they set off to find out what was happening. A girl was thrown out of a moving car, but her dress got trapped by the door. She was dragged on the tarmac on her back. When the men in the car realised this, they opened the car door again, dropped her onto the road, and drove off.’
The girl was from Burundi, as were the two daughters, allowing them to talk. The girl had come to Uganda, having been told that prostitution was lucrative there.
The two daughters called their mother and, together, they took the girl to the nearest hospital. The women from the fellowship befriended her with food and support. However, there was a tragic twist to the tale.
‘The girl had two pimps, so after two days they abducted her from the hospital and we didn’t see her again,’ says Annette.
‘The only thing we knew was how to love and care for them, so that’s what we did.'
The women of the fellowship decided that the tragic incident showed God’s answer to their prayer ‘what shall we do?’ And so, tentatively at first, they began to offer care for some of the people caught in prostitution – often these were young girls.
‘We knew nothing about prostitution and pimping,’ says Annette. ‘The only thing we knew was how to love and care for them, so that’s what we did. Our whole ministry came from the question “what would we do for our daughters?” That was what we tried to do for these girls.’
As the women of the fellowship soon discovered, opening your heart in this way can be challenging. ‘We cried a lot,’ remembers Annette. ‘Every story we heard was like “oh my goodness!” Our work was birthed with that passion and it’s still burning strong after over ten years. It was a prayer that set us up and the rest we worked out as we went along.’
The fellowship set up a residential home for some of the girls and the project slowly grew. Annette had been reluctant to get too deeply involved – she had been studying for a new career in counselling. She even thought of leaving the Wednesday morning fellowship altogether, but felt the Holy Spirit urge her to stay.
Finally in 2008 she took charge of the work, as it launched as an autonomous organisation, apart from the ladies fellowship.
‘I remember thinking “what have I just agreed to?”’ Annette recalls. ‘I don’t know anyone in this city and I'm not a good fundraiser. But God has been good and he's compensated for all of my weaknesses.’
A worldwide web
One thing that God did provide for Rahab Uganda were partnerships – and it opened up their world, almost literally:
‘We were trying to find out about human trafficking, but we didn't really understand it. Then one day I was watching CNN and I saw this organisation based in Bangkok. Something about them resonated with me.’
Annette got in touch with the founder, a Thai missionary called Jane*, and they started corresponding. ‘Then one day she called me to say “Annette, there are Ugandan girls that need to be rescued from Thailand. Will you receive them if we send them back?”’
'We want to challenge the narrative that makes men want to buy sex in the first place.’
Annette agreed and their work grew rapidly.
She soon discovered that the tentacles of trafficking extended much, much further. ‘Since 2008 we've been helping to return women from all over, including Saudi Arabia and Oman,’ she explains. ‘Every day, I get a minimum of one reported case of somebody who needs to be repatriated from the Arab world – today I got two.’
Rahab Uganda has grown far beyond its original single refuge and its remit has expanded too. Their stated mission is: ‘To restore the self-image of girls affected by sexual exploitation and human trafficking, to empower them to proactively engage in personal transformation.’
With a residential home and a drop-in centre, Annette and her team reach out to the most vulnerable. Their aim is no quick fix: it’s to allow the women and girls to recover from their traumatic past and build a better future.
‘We offer medical help, because many of them will come back with all kinds of infections – especially if it was sexual exploitation. There’s a counselling program so they can begin to process everything that’s happened. Then we are able to offer training to help them find a career or even start their own businesses.’
Better than cure
As the extent of prostitution and trafficking in Uganda has become clear to Annette and her colleagues, they have dedicated more and more time to the work of prevention.
‘We do radio and TV as well as schools, churches and orphanages. We want to move to the Muslim community, because we see there's a need there. We want to challenge the cultural ideologies that promote vulnerability and exploitation of women. We want to challenge the narrative that makes men want to buy sex in the first place.’
‘The key thing all of these girls need is unconditional love. Many of them wonder if God really cares about them at all.'
In 2016 she and some of her colleagues were invited to contribute to a new East African Anti-Trafficking Bill. She didn’t hold back in offering her opinions.
‘I feel that sometimes our legislators do things for the sake of appearance, so I asked them: “How far are you willing to go to enforce these laws?” It was very interesting. They didn't answer, they laughed.’
The bill was passed and Annette and her team are hard at work making sure that the plan does amount to more than empty words.
‘We are hopeful, but it needs to be enforced at every level. The prosecutors we’ve trained are excited. We’ve got judges that are on board with it. We really need to train and empower the police much more.‘
Annette says she is hopeful for the future, not least because she’s now being supported by many of the women they had originally helped – as they leave university or as their businesses flourish.
She stresses that all the girls’ future successes are ultimately based on one firm foundation:
‘The key thing all of these girls need is unconditional love. Many of them wonder if God really cares about them at all. We are strong on building their self-worth. It’s not what I think about you, or what your parents think about you. What does Christ think about you? That's the only true foundation I know.’
Annette Kirabira is a graduate from Tearfund's Inspired Individuals programme. This exists to identify, develop and connect new leaders who are aspiring to live like Jesus and whose dreams have the potential to transform some of the most needy places and people in our world.
Loving God, God of mercy and justice, thank you for the remarkable work of women and men like Annette. Please bless and expand the work of Rahab across Uganda and Africa. Empower more of your children around the world to respond to the terrible evils of trafficking and prostitution.
*Name changed to protect identity.