Marembo Centre: Transforming lives of sexually abused girls

AS her age mates attended school, Uwase (not real name) was working as a maid. As if the plight of working as a maid was not bad enough, she was abused by the people she expected to protect her.

AS her age mates attended school, Uwase (not real name) was working as a maid. As if the plight of working as a maid was not bad enough, she was abused by the people she expected to protect her.

As fate would have it, the son to her boss made sexual advances and her attempts to reject them only led to rape.

From the ordeal of rape, she got pregnant and was later sent away because neither her boss nor her son could deal with the shame.

“My boss sent me away after learning that it was her son who was responsible for my pregnancy. I lived a miserable life on the streets until I gave birth. Having nothing to feed my baby, I thought of leaving her on the streets but unfortunately (or rather fortunately) the Police arrested me,” she says.

“When they heard my story and learnt that I was a victim of sexual violence, they called Marembo centre and I was given a new home.”

Marembo centre caters for sexually abused girls under the age of eighteen.

Life has never been the same for Uwase as she now calls the centre a home away from home.

“The centre came to my rescue during the hardest time of my life; they took me in, counseled me and healed the wounds in my heart. They provided shelter for me and my new born baby,” Uwase recalls.

Uwase is just one of the many girls whose lives have been transformed by the centre.

Nsabimana guides the girls in their day-to-day activities.

Ishimwe (also not real name) joined the centre a few years back with a story so heart wrenching,it could bring someone to tears.

She was dumped on the streets by her own mother at a very tender age. Ishimwe became a victim of many sexual predators, moving from bar to bar entertaining whoever seemed to care.

That was her situation for years till she landed in the safe hands of Marembo Centre.

Nicolette Nsabimana, the founder of the centre, says that Ishimwe was in a bad state when she came to the centre. She was physically weak and had even become dumb.

“When Ishimwe came to the centre two years ago, we provided her with counseling, gave her medical support and treatment. It took her time to stabilise but she is now living a normal life and we continue to try to help her come to terms with everything she has been through,” Nsabimana explains.

The girls at Marembo Centre are mostly victims of sexual violence; some were raped by strangers, others by their biological fathers and brothers. Some are victims of forced marriages,the majority below the age of eighteen.

Remarkably, upon arrival at the centre, one is welcomed by warm smiles from the girls, with barely any signs of the miserable and wretched experiences that life threw their way.

Some of the girls at Marembo Centre were forced to live on the streets after they were sexually abused and left pregnant.

Nsabimana explains that when she receives the kids from the streets, the first step is to take them for a medical checkup and later integrate them with the others because some are received when infected with dangerous diseases.

For example, one girl who was brought to the centre was only 14 but was raped and impregnated, infected with HIV and Hepatitis.

So, caution is needed to keep the girls safe and healthy.

Counseling services, vocational training plus formal education are some of the services that these girls have access to. They are equipped with skills in weaving and tailoring, among others, to help them survive after leaving the centre.

They also talk about what they want to do with their lives whether it’s vocational or formal education. Advocacy is done for those with unique talents.

As with any other family, when children grow up, they are expected to leave and start their own lives, Nsabimana says.

“We take the children back to their families or find them foster homes when they are 18 and above. This is done to help reduce the number as a result of the limited accommodation facilities yet more girls are in need of assistance,” she adds.

However, this year, the centre stopped integrating children back to families since it causes more harm than good in many cases.

Nicolette Nsabimana (holding baby) opened the doors of Marembo Centre to victims of sexual abuse. (All photos by Donah Mbabazi)

Nsabimana recalls how a 14-year-old girl was reunited with her family but the mother decided to marry her off to a 45-year-old man, accusing her of wanting to break her marriage.

“Two months in the marriage, the girl called me and explained everything so I had to bring her back to the centre.This happened at the beginning of this year,” Nsabimana says.

Life seems to have turned to normal as the girls now have a place they call home; they attend classes and have someone to care for them.


Signs and symptoms of the sexually abused child

The signs and symptoms:

•Gradual and/or sudden changes in behaviour (isolation, becoming introverted, withdrawal, fearfulness, agitation, excessive crying, depression)
•Aggressive / disruptive behaviour•
•Cruelty to others / cruelty to pets
•Change or loss of appetite
•Recurring nightmares; disturbed sleep patterns, fear of the dark
•Sudden change displaying immature behaviour for their age

•Regression to more of an infantile behaviour (bed wetting, thumb sucking, excessive crying)
•Torn or stained underclothing
•Vaginal or rectal bleeding, pain, itching, swollen genitals, vaginal discharge or an STD (Sexually Transmitted Disease)
•Unusual interest in and/or knowledge of sexual matters
•Expressing affection in ways that are inappropriate for a child of that age
•Sexual acting out / inappropriate sexual play (with self, other children, adults, pets, toys)
•Fear of a certain person or an intense dislike of being left somewhere or with someone

•Trying to avoid a familiar adult
•Afraid of places similar to where the abuse occurs or occurred
•Overly compliant behaviour

•False maturity / mature appearance and/or behaviour, inappropriate for their age (acting or dressing older) / heightened sense of responsibility / devotion to duty
•Unusual / strange / inappropriate interaction between a child and a specific person
•Change in behaviour only around a specific person
•Difficulty walking or sitting
•Wearing many layers of clothing

•Afraid to be left alone
•Unable to go to the bathroom or refuses to go; more than likely only around a certain person
•Pretending to be sick or actually becoming ill / recurring health/medical Issues
•Loss of or lack of interest in friends, school, sports, other activities, etc...
•Difficulty learning in school / inability to concentrate / short attention span / may appear to have a learning disorder / appears to be hyperactive (may even be diagnosed as ADD / ADHD)
•Fear of participating in physical activities at school

Additional (pre-teens & teenagers)

•Extreme and/or unexplained anger
•Running away
•Delinquent behaviour

•Low self worth
•Self destructive behaviour / self-harm / self-mutilation (cutting, burning)
•Seductive behaviour / promiscuous behaviour
•Low self-esteem vs. something to prove eating disorders

•Addictions (drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography)
•Mood swings
•Sudden change in school performance and behaviour

•Arriving at school early / staying late
•Unexplained and/or excessive fear
•Signs of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
•Suicide thoughts / attempts and/or suicide

Please note:

Disclosure by child...

Not Guaranteed. Possible, but unlikely. Sexual abusers of children know how to silence children.

Physical evidence...

Unlikely for a couple of reasons...

Unless a child is brutally raped, there may not be enough evidence. Any evidence that is there may be dismissed as potentially being caused by something else... undetermined cause.



I say: How can society help sexually abused girls?

Erica Urwibutso, model

Alice Umulisa

Society should take the initiative to give these girls, or at least guide them to, safe homes through relevant departments or authorities. It is everyone’s responsibility to help these girls, mainly because they are ignorant about their rights or where to go if abused. So as a society, we need to be their voice and help them.

Phiona Mutesi, Student

Alice Umulisa

In my opinion, society should be more concerned about sexually abused girls. Today it might be your neighbour’s daughter and tomorrow your own. Every person should feel obligated to help a sexually abused girl by offering them a chance to live a normal life in whatever way possible, perhaps through donating food, medical assistance, and education, among other things.

Fiona Ntaringwa, fashion designer

Alice Umulisa

First, there should be a place where girls who have been sexually abused can go and discuss their ordeals with people who are willing to help them. It could be the authorities or simply concerned citizens. This way, they can stop feeling ashamed or blaming themselves and know that they still have a lot to contribute to society despite the fact they may have been robbed of their innocence. Furthermore, campaigns such as HeForShe should be strengthened to encourage more to advocate for these girls. As a result, communities will be enlightened on the situation and more will be willing to let these girls in for both physical and emotional support.

Alice Umulisa, Student

Alice Umulisa

There should be psychotherapy departments in communities so that the abused can get emotional support. This, I believe, could open a way for further information or details that could help in the investigation process, hence justice for the abused. Personally, I think society should look at such departments as essential initiatives to battle problems of this nature. Abused girls need people to talk to, so that they can free their minds from the horror they went through.

Compiled by Dennis Agaba


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