Warning: The following content features a story involving sexual assault.
It was an unseasonably warm summer night, and 14-year-old Grace was rushing down the narrow and secluded path from her village to Lake Victoria.
She had stayed late at school by herself, which put her entire evening behind schedule. By the time she got home, her sister, Sarah, had already left to collect water without her — which meant she’d have to go alone.
With her Jerry Can in hand, Grace raced the two and a half miles down to the lake, weaving through thick, scraggily bushes. The stillness had her questioning every little noise. As the shadows grew longer, she began stomping her feet, trying to make her presence known to scare off anything hiding from view.
When she finally reached the lake, Grace waded out until the murky water was above her knees and quickly dipped her Jerry Can below the surface. A calm, eerie silence surrounded her as she scanned the dim marsh for signs of movement. Snakes. Hippos. Crocodiles. Anything. It felt like an eternity passed as the can glugged full of water. Finally, she was able to rush back to the shore. Almost all of the color in the sky was gone.
With a full Jerry Can balanced on her head, she turned to make her way back home. But something was on the path before her.
She squinted her eyes and counted the shadows of four men.
Startled and confused, she tried not to panic. Grace quickly attempted to walk around them. But the men didn’t allow it. One of them snatched her wrist. Another knocked the Jerry Can off of her head. Grace tried to scream, but a massive hand covered her mouth.
Together, the men dragged her into the bushes, where three of them pinned her down, and the other one raped her.
The rest was a blur.
Grace sprinted down the path, screaming and crying for help. Eventually, alarmed families came running from their homes to see what was going on. A group of men scoured the area, but it was too late; they couldn’t find anyone.
Everyone already knew the answer: a group of passing fishermen had quietly docked their boat and waited for a girl to come walking by alone. By now, they were long gone.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened here. And it wouldn’t be the last.
The first thing you notice about the Namayingo District of Uganda is its beauty. Lush with green, tall grass, fields of maize and vibrant rolling hills. It’s how you’d imagine Hawaii in the 1950's— a less-modern kind of paradise.
And it feels like a wonderful place to grow up.
Inside these quiet villages, each family has their own compound of three to five grass-roofed huts— at least one for the parents, one for the children and one for the kitchen. Small tufts of smoke rise into the sky. Cows call to their calves. The laughter of children rings out in the distance.
The Namayingo District is tucked away in the corner of the country. It’s as far south as you can go before running into the largest body of water in Africa, Lake Victoria. And if you didn’t know any better, the lake would only add to the charm.
Tiny purple flowers float with brilliant green lily pads clinging to the shore. Long, wooden fishing boats glide across the tropical lake water. Shadowy Kenyan mountains line the horizon.
But the people in the Namayingo District do know better.
No matter how many miles you live from Lake Victoria, if your village lacks access to clean water, this is where you come for your daily supply. Women make four to six arduous trips to this lake every day to collect water for their families. Which means that they’re very familiar with the predators that lurk in and around it.
By the time they were 11 and 12 years old, Grace and Sarah already knew the dangers that came with collecting water. They already knew the names of several women who had been killed by a crocodile or snake bite. But they also already knew that there was no alternative. So despite their fear, the inseparable sisters came here each day, together.
As the oldest girls in a family of fourteen, Grace and Sarah did almost everything together. They felt a strong need to set an example for their siblings.
Strength. Determination. Teamwork.
The vibrant duo woke up every day at sunrise together. Swept the leaves from their compound together. Walked to school together. Came home and helped their mother turn land together. Walked to collect water together. Snuck in games of dodgeball with their friends together. Helped cook and clean up dinner together. And eventually went to bed giggling and laughing — talking about boys and planning their future together.
Grace and Sarah didn’t need to be told that “education means survival,” as their mom, Rose, put it. They adored school from the beginning.
Grace had been selected as a class monitor, an assistant to the teacher, responsible for cleaning the chalkboards and handing out books. Sarah was the health prefect, making sure that her classmates wore clean uniforms and maintained proper hygiene.
Both girls were hand-chosen because their teachers saw them as role models. They were well-poised leaders, they stood out and they knew what they wanted.
One day, Grace and Sarah planned to become doctors. They’d live in the city for a while and then come back to take care of their friends and family in their village. They had high hopes for themselves. And they were on their way.
After the attack, Grace felt ashamed and lost. She came home and told only her mother and sister what happened.
For the next week, she refused to collect water. But despite the fear and the resentment she felt toward that lake, she was forced to return there again. When she went back, she vowed that it would never be dark and she would always travel with her mom and sister by her side.
A few months passed before Grace noticed anything. Until one day she started feeling nauseous.
Nervous, she made a secret trip to the hospital in a town nearby. They confirmed what she feared: Grace was pregnant.
She was devastated. So terrified that she couldn’t even eat. This went on for two days until finally her mother demanded, “What’s your problem? Why aren’t you eating?” And Grace broke down.
The family took some time to process their response. They knew that being an unwed mother would bring shame to Grace. People would think less of her and of the entire family. The prospect of marriage would become unlikely. And worst of all, she’d have to drop out of school.
Her mom gave her strength to keep her head up: “I have not forgiven the boys that did this, but we have no option other than to live and keep going.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
Life changed for the entire family, but especially for Grace and Sarah. For the first time, the two girls began living very separate lives. While Sarah continued to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, Grace tried to accept her new life — working in the field and providing for her fatherless child.
“My life changed,” Grace said with tears in her eyes. “My dreams were cut off.”
And then, just as the family began to overcome their stigma in the community, the unthinkable happened again.
This time, it was Sarah who was raped.
The situation was nearly the same: she was alone, and a group of men sprung from the bushes to attack her.
The difference was that Sarah didn’t tell anyone.
Having seen what her sister had gone through, she felt too scared and ashamed — as if somehow it was her fault. Deep down, she feared the worst… that she would also become pregnant and have to drop out of school. Sarah hoped that if she didn’t tell anyone, it would just go away.
But months later, there was no denying that she was pregnant.
She had no choice but to turn to her mom and sister. Grace felt powerless in the situation, but knew firsthand what Sarah was going through, and she was there for her.
“Cool down,” Grace would say. “It happened, and there’s nothing you can do. I’ve gone through this. I’ll help you.”
The three of them told their father together, and the family braced themselves once more as the nightmare began to unfold all over again.
This time, the situation was worse. People said, “What’s wrong with this family?!” They didn’t believe Sarah had been raped because they never heard about it to begin with.
“Ignore them.” Grace advised her sister. “They know nothing!”
Four months into her pregnancy, Sarah was forced to give up her favorite thing in the world and drop out of school.
None of this is what Grace and Sarah had planned when they were kids… to become women while they were still girls.
Instead of going to school themselves, they now help nine of their younger siblings study and do homework. They work alongside their mother; sweating in their field, preparing food, scrubbing dirty clothes for the children and sharing responsibilities for the entire house.
But despite everything that happened, these young women still remain hopeful.
“You deliver your child, and you don’t give up. You work hard, you go back to school and you see what you can do.”
Today, Grace, Sarah and all of the women in their village no longer walk to Lake Victoria to collect their water.
Thanks to our local partner organization in Uganda, GOAL, they have a well in the middle of their village that women can access without fear of being attacked by anything or anyone. Not only are the families healthier, but the women have more time.
So while the plan for Grace and Sarah has changed, there’s still a plan.
Sarah has a separate garden where she spends her extra time growing vegetables. What she doesn’t share with the family, she sells in order to support herself and her son, Bryton.
Once a week, Grace uses her extra time to sell shoes at a local market to support herself and her son, Warren.
If the girls can save up enough money, they’ll go to a trade school. They want to become hairstylists in the city. They want to work and live together. To survive together.
“When we were young, we didn’t know things would be this way. But we’re healthy, and we’re still happy. We still have opportunities.”
The girls and their children share sleeping quarters once more. And again, they giggle at night. But now they dream not just about their futures, but about those of their sons: two future doctors.
“I was not ready for a kid,” Sarah said, “but I like being a mother.”
“Yeah,” Grace added, “we will have families and take care of them like our mom has cared for us.”
“I’d like to raise a family just like ours.”
In many countries around the world, women and girls put their lives in danger every day to collect water for their families.
Many wake up before sunrise and spend up to four hours walking. And often, the water they bring home isn’t even clean.
The long, exhausting and dangerous task of walking for water is just one of the many reasons charity: water works to build community water projects close to people’s homes.
Having access to clean water within the community not only saves hours of time; it provides safety, health and hygiene. It directly impacts the future of women and girls in particular, and we believe it’s the first step out of poverty for rural communities all over the world.
charity: water has been working in Uganda with the help of local water partners since 2006, and thanks to thousands of supporters around the world, we’ve funded more than 195 water projects that will serve over 122,000 people with clean and safe water near their homes.
If you’d like to donate to support the work of charity: water, please visit charitywater.org. 100% of all donations directly fund water projects.
I’ve traveled to eight countries with charity: water, capturing stories about the people we serve and the difference that clean water makes, and I’ve never been on a trip without a female coworker until this one.
I didn’t (and still don’t) feel entirely comfortable being the person to tell this story. It’s such a sensitive subject — and one in which I have absolutely no authority.
But both girls, whose names I’ve changed for their protection, said that if it means other communities in Uganda will receive access to clean water and girls can live without fear, that they want the story to be told.
And I consider it an honor.
We spent five days in this village, camping inside this compound, and I’ve never felt closer to people in the field. For one week, we were absolutely part of their family. We shared meals, laughs and tears. We played games together. We held (and even babysat) their children.
It was an emotional and remarkably memorable week, and more than anything, I’m just thankful to have been a part of it.
— Tyler Riewer, content strategist, charity: water / July, 2014