298 – Ending Violence Against Children, with Stella Ayo-Odongo

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Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by Stella Ayo-Odongo from the director for Pathfinding Countries’ global partnership to end violence against children hosted by UNICEF. The two discuss the importance of advocacy and creating spaces where the voiceless can be heard.

Stella Ayo-Adongo

Stella Ayo-Odongo is the director for Pathfinding Countries’ global partnership to end violence against children hosted by UNICEF. She’s a child rights, child protection, social policy expert, and an advocate for social justice. Stella is a motivated leader and development practitioner with over 25 years of progressive experience in strategic leadership, development management, and program operations. She has extensive knowledge and experience advocating for vulnerable groups, such as the children, youth, and the elderly. Stella is a visionary Pan-African leader, as demonstrated in the founding of national and regional level movements for social justice, such as the African wide movement for the children, civil society organizations for peace in Northern Uganda, and the Uganda parliamentary forum for children, all of which have made significant contributions to voicing issues of the affected.

Key Points

  • Among the many forms of trafficking in the world, and in Uganda, is harmful cultural practices. While these practices are cultural traditions, they can often be harmful, therefore falling into trafficking.
  • 37 countries have committed to jining the Pathfinding Initiative, meaning they have chosen to champion the cause to end violence against children. This has helped advocate for vulnerable groups and launch initiatives in each country, as it starts at the governing level.
  • The 7 INSPIRE Strategies include implementation and enforcement of laws, norms and values, safe environments, parents and caregiver support, income and economic strengthening, response and support services, and educational life skills.
  • To protect vulnerable communities, it is important not only to uplift the voices of those who have lived these experiences by advocating, but create spaces for them to speak as their voices can cause enormous change.
  • National Child Helplines have allowed for immediate reports to be made, and the Child Helplines of Uganda receives 1500 calls a day with 90% requiring immediate action. Child Helplines also help mitigate trafficking and have aided in the fight to stop child marriage.


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Sandra Morgan 0:00
You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode 298, Ending Violence Against Children with Stella Ayo-Odongo.

Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast here at Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice in Orange County, California. My name is Sandie Morgan and this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Stella Ayo-Odongo is the director for Pathfinding Countries’ global partnership to end violence against children hosted by UNICEF. She’s a child rights, child protection, social policy expert, and an advocate for social justice. Stella is a motivated leader and development practitioner with over 25 years of progressive experience in strategic leadership, development management, and program operations. She has extensive knowledge and experience advocating for vulnerable groups, such as the children, youth, and the elderly. Stella is a visionary Pan-African leader, as demonstrated in the founding of national and regional level movements for social justice, such as the African wide movement for the children, civil society organizations for peace in Northern Uganda, and the Uganda parliamentary forum for children, all of which have made significant contributions to voicing issues of the affected. Stella, I’m really excited to meet you and I want to start by welcoming you to Vanguard University. It’s your first visit here so let’s start with the real reason why you’re here in my office at the Global Center for Women and Justice here at Vanguard University.

Stella Ayo-Odongo 2:28
Thank you. I happen to be having to travel to America on travel duty and my daughter, Melissa being here in California, I decided to just take a trip to California to surprise her at Vanguard University. So my mission was basically to come and surprise her unfortunately, like I told you, the surprise didn’t work out. But it was nice meeting, meeting with Tivoli and when I was talking to Tivoli, before I came about what I do and the work that I do, she just mentioned that it was important for me to meet Professor Sandra, who is the head of the global trafficking unit in the university. So that is how I find myself coming to meet you right now.

Sandra Morgan 3:17
It is so wonderful and I’ve met your daughter, and she is delightful, so I already feel like I know you and I’m thrilled that she’s our student. So let’s talk about your journey. I often have students ask me what major to get to do the kind of work that you and I do. So I’d love to hear about your journey. So let’s start with university.

Stella Ayo-Odongo 3:50
Alright! I went to Makerere University, I’m sure you heard about Makerere University, one of the the 10 biggest universities in East Africa. While at the university, I studied a Bachelor of Arts and Social Sciences and I majored in Political Science with social administration. So coming out of university, my first engagement was I applied for a research project that was then run by USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and the USAID the project was looking at the reason why girls drop out of school. It is from there that I picked interest in the work on vulnerable communities and especially girls because it was amazing to learn that a thing as little as the absence of a sanitary pad would actually stop the child from continuing with her education and that was one of the reasons why the girls were dropping out in addition to many others that included violence. So that was where my journey into development practice, that was the entry point in my journey into development practice. I then went into, just after completing University immediately after that study, I then worked in the rural community. There was a conflict and emergency situation in Uganda and in northern part of Uganda, a lot of the issues that the women were dealing with required them to be supported. So we did work with a company that was a cooperative alliance to supply farm tools that are giving them hoes, sickles, and seeds as a startup, kind of like a startup script for those who are returning back after the war. Through that, again, I interacted with a number of cases where the children, women, and families had been broken apart as a result of the war. Many were abducted, girls were abducted and taken and recruited into the army and then that also deepened my interest in the work with vulnerable communities.

Sandra Morgan 6:02
Well recruiting even little girls into the army, that’s human trafficking of children. And is that something? Are there other forms of human trafficking in Uganda?

Stella Ayo-Odongo 6:17
Yes, that was then that recruitment of children is one of the forms of human trafficking. But there’s also been trafficking for sexual purposes. I later on then, joined with a network. It is called the Uganda Child Rights NGO network. And the focus of the network was basically on promoting the protection of the rights of children in Uganda, but amongst the key things that we were focusing on was ending child prostitution and trafficking because the network was hosting the coalition in Uganda so it was actually looking at some of the issues that we’re dealing with was trafficking for sexual purposes, trafficking for organ transplants. At that time, there was a lot of trafficking for organ transplant, and even had to deal with a situation of human sacrifice. So there were children being abducted, and then they’ll be sacrificed and their organs were taken for beliefs, used in practices that were considered traditional, harmful traditional practices. So those are some aspects that interrupted.

Sandra Morgan 7:26
I think harmful traditional practices is a new term for most of my students. Can you give us just like a brief understanding of what that means?

Stella Ayo-Odongo 7:39
Okay. The African tradition have a number of cultures and practices that have been practiced over the years and have gone through being passed on from generation to generation. Some of them include storytelling, some of them include presiding over traditional marriages, some of them include riddles, some of them include inheritance practices, but there were those that are actually harmful to the person, to the human being. Some of these practices, that they may have already heard about, include female genital mutilation or cutting, include the human sacrifice, it will be murder but they will actually call it a sacrifice, they’ll sacrifice a human being instead of an animal so that is also considered harmful. So we are advocating against those harmful cultural practices that would come harm the individual.

Sandra Morgan 8:42
Wow. So that’s really helpful when you’re looking at how are we going to stop this kind of trafficking and when we here at Vanguard, we really love to focus on education as a part of prevention, and where you are now, you’re really advocating. I’ve heard you, I’ve started counting like seven or eight times “advocate”. Advocate comes across. So you speak up for child rights, for child protection, for social policy, and when you talk about your journey in university and starting in sociology, but that political science piece of this, how has that addressed the way you look at preventing and stopping this child trafficking?

Stella Ayo-Odongo 9:40
Yeah, I think there was a lot of teaching around how to change positions, how to influence. When we were at the university, there was a whole course unit on advocacy and influence and engaging. So with that, and that was in political science, and it talked to about challenging that advocacy is about speaking to power and authority and causing them to change the way they do things because many of the injustices happen because of power imbalance. Therefore, if we are to change the status quo, even when we talk about trafficking, the person who gets trafficked is vulnerable, because they lack certain basic necessities. Because they lack those necessities, they then find themselves in spaces where they have to make choices that are difficult and if there’s somebody who has power, which is something like money, they can then use that power to then influence them to take them and traffic them. So that is basically the terrain of social injustice. So with that then, we’re taught that for us to be able to change the mindset, we needed to then address the power centers, and addressing the power centers means you have to speak out for the vulnerable, you have to speak to those that hold the power. For example, we had to speak to those that were, in the case of trafficking, we were talking about looking at the demand side, that it’s okay to talk about, to address the children or the girls that have been trafficked. But that is already at the end tail of it. We need to address it before it happens and look at the demand side, talk to these people who actually demand for the children or demand for the girls to be sold to them. When you address that, then you prevent it. The prevention science is basically about addressing, stopping the issue from happening and rather than waiting for it to happen, and acting as a response. So that was where we actually felt that there was a need to emphasize advocacy and over the years, a lot of my work has been focusing on advocacy, causing people to see that we can prevent the harm from happening, and do no harm before it happens rather than waiting for the situation to happen, then we intervene.

Sandra Morgan 12:14
I am very excited about that approach to prevention. We want to intervene before anything bad happens. Back in 2016, they launched the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, and you’re a leader in this, can you tell us what Pathfinding Countries is all about?

Stella Ayo-Odongo 12:43
Okay. Back in 2015, when the UN General Assembly passed the agenda 2030, one of the key resolutions or the key targets in agenda 2030 was standard 16.2 that was focusing on ending all forms of violence and exploitation, and abuse of children and young people. And with that, then the UN Secretary General then launched the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, alongside the end violence fund that was launched in 2016. And together with that, they also launched a package, a prevention package that was called the Inspire strategies that was put together to help in the prevention of violence against children in response to 16.2. So that is the whole genesis. So with the pressure of the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, one of the key programs that was one of the key pillars of the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children was the Pathfinding Initiative, which was basically a model to mobilize political will, to mobilize countries to make political commitments to champion the cause to end violence against children. So countries would then sign up to say, “We, as a country would like to champion the cause to end violence against children and we are going to take the following actions to undertake that.” So as champions and trailblazers, those countries then became the pathfinding countries and all that they would do was to provide the leadership, political leadership and political commitment and then galvanize all the other partners, bring on board those that are working on keeping children safe in school, bring on the agenda to stop slavery and human trafficking, target 8.7. Bring on board all the other actors that are working on keeping children safe online. So that is the whole idea of the Pathfinding Initiative. To date we have about 37 pathfinding countries that have made this commitment and have demonstrated efforts to prevent violence against children.

Sandra Morgan 15:05
I love this because it is a very substantial model of advocating speaking to power, it starts at the the country’s governing level and gains their support as you launch initiatives in that country for children and young people. I love the fact that the title of the strategies spells the word ‘INSPIRE’. It’s like it breathes life into the vision of ending violence against children. So I think we have enough time to cover those seven strategies. What is the first one?

Stella Ayo-Odongo 15:48
Okay, the first strategy in the word ‘INSPIRE’ is implementation of laws, implementation and enforcement of laws and under that is basically acknowledging the fact that all that we do, the normative framework, the laws are very, very, very important in curbing, in this case, violence against children. Having in place strong laws, and beyond having the laws in place, ensuring that these laws are implemented, that is why enforcement is a critical component of that is really key in the INSPIRE strategies. So in the work that we do, as we advocate, and as countries champion the cause to end violence against children, as the trailblazers, one of the things that we encourage and push for countries to adopt is to ensure that the policies and legislation actually have provisions that protect children from violence, and that prevent violence from happening, and even when violence happens, there is remedies. They can have recourse to have these laws enforced. The second letter, which is ‘N’, is norms and values. Earlier on in the beginning of the conversation, we talked about harmful norms, harmful practices. There are values and norms that are harmful and that need to be addressed, I would say that encourage the practice of violence or the letting of violence against children. I’ll take an example; corporal punishment, for example. Many of us grew up in the era, I think you and I grew up in the era, where there was a belief that spanking was was the only way that a child would understand and it became normalized. They normalized corporal punishment. Some of these norms that have been normalized, and the values that have been normalized, need to be addressed when we look at the issue of violence against children. We need to accept that some of these things need to talk to the communities, to practitioners and tell them it’s not acceptable. The N stands for norms and values and the S stands for a safe environment. We’re looking at the schools, we’re looking at the community, we’re looking at that if we are to address the issue of violence, I’m going to make sure that whatever spaces they’re in, they feel safe, they feel safe in the schools and safe in the places of worship that they go to, they feel safe in the community, even when they walk around, they should feel safe. That addresses the school, the community, and other places that children interact. The fourth one is parenting, parent and caregiver support. Over the years we have been teaching the world around parenting is actually the vaccine to ending violence against children because if you have to get it right, you need to get it with the parents because the parent is the first educator. The parent is the first person that teaches the child and with parenting and caregiver support, we can actually stop or prevent violence against children, once we have parents having the right information, the right attitude, the right knowledge, and also teaching them about positive parenting. So all that goes into prevention, positive parenting, positive display, all those happen under the parental norm.

Sandra Morgan 19:23
I want to dig a little bit more into that because I’ve been traveling, I’ve been working with tribal nations in Arizona, I’ve been talking to people in different countries, and this particular issue keeps coming up: parenting. One of the things that challenged me, is we expect parents to just naturally know how to raise a healthy, resilient child but if they were raised in a situation with alcohol and drugs with violence, then they didn’t learn that. So how in this particular part of the Inspire model are you actually supporting parent and caregiver resilience? How do you change something and give parents those skills that they didn’t experience themselves?

Stella Ayo-Odongo 20:25
I think therein lies the trick because, like you rightly put it, many of us, many families, many young people have grown up in violent families, they’ve grown up without parents and so they only know what they have experienced. What parenting and caregiver support does is that it now brings what has worked: the best called promising practices in parenting. It brings to the fore what good parenting practices look like, those that have lived in quote, unquote normal family settings, so that these others can learn from. It’s basically documenting some of the models that have been documented within the Inspire strategies that have been tested and tried and those models are actually what we now use to promote the Inspire strategy. These models are the ones that we share with the community, we share with the countries and these countries, then adopt them and adapt them to their contexts, and apply those. It’s basically picking what has worked, what is good, and then sharing it and training and building the capacity and capacitating those that have experienced different forms of parenting to begin to unlearn, and also relearn.

Sandra Morgan 21:51
I like that unlearn, and relearn. We’re going to put links to these resources in our show notes, in case you’re like, listening to this and thinking, ‘I want that’ because I’m listening to it, and I want it. Okay, what’s next in Inspire?

Stella Ayo-Odongo 22:07
If go to the next, there is also in relation to promoting good product parenting practices, there is the global initiative to support parents that we started. Five partner organizations came together, and the initiative is basically to promote positive parenting across the world. It’s being managed, or the coalition that came together to end violence, parenting for lifelong health, ECDAN which is early childhood education network, we have UNICEF, who all came together to form this global initiative to support parents. This global initiative to support parents actually is now the umbrella body that is now promoting implementation of different parenting programs, but also taking on the key that is Inspire strategies. The next one is income and economic strengthening. This is also in the realization that some of the reasons that make communities or make girls vulnerable, especially in situations, like we talked about earlier, of trafficking is because of the poverty. Poverty is an underlying cause of everything that happens. For us to be able to prevent violence of an issue and to prevent trafficking for example, we need to ensure that communities have a source of livelihood, have income and have the means to empower economically, to be able to fend for themselves, so that they are no longer being lured into trafficking as a way of economic gain. Because that is usually the front runner for those who come to tactical trafficking use many ways, they thrive or ride on the lack of the vulnerable girls and that’s how they end up being trafficked. Income and economic support, income and economic strength is very, very key in that respect. Then the R is response and support, response and support services. While we’re looking at parenting, and we’re looking at prevention, we also acknowledge parenting is prevention. We also acknowledge that some times before prevention happens, as we even preach the prevention science, some children have found themselves trafficked or find themselves violated. So with that, then response services become critical response and support services where the children are already experiencing violence, where the children have already been trafficked the response services help. National Child Help Lines is one thing that we’ve talked about a lot. I’m happy to mention that as part of my journey in the work to protect children from abuse, one of the things that I did was to champion the establishment of a national Child Helpline, a toll free helpline, which was the first of its kind that was established in Uganda. It is now amongst the 93 child helplines globally that is now receiving calls. Just to give a bit of background on how I promoted the establishment of that helpline was that I was in the office going along my normal duties, and then a lady walks in because she saw the word child on the signpost and she said, “I need help, my child has been abused.” The child then coughs once and there’s a pool of blood and so to me, it just showed me that if this woman had where to report, maybe where there was an immediate response, she wouldn’t have moved so many places to try and find this. So then I reached out to the telecom companies and told them about the need to provide a confidential reporting mechanism for girls, for children, for women, where they can call where there is abuse, or there’s a risk of abuse and with that the Uganda Child Helpline was then birthed. We started with receiving 70 calls, and to date the Child Helpline recieves 1500 calls a day and of those calls about 90% require immediate action. Through that, they’ve also been able to mitigate trafficking, they’ve been able to stop child marriage. This Child Helpline has now transitioned from an NGO on the first managed facility to now a government owned and government managed facility. So that is the response.

Congratulations. Okay, the last one.

The last one is then education and life skills. This is really, really critical, because this helped especially build and capacitate the children, building the agency of children, raising awareness on the issue is very, very critical and is a very, very good strategy for prevention. Because when you actually raise awareness and make known the issue around violence against children, then people are inclined, or people are drawn and encouraged to prevent it. If you talk about what harm it does, given the numbers, given the figures, it actually does prevent it in some ways from happening. So those are the Inspire strategies.

Sandra Morgan 28:12
I love all of these, we’re going to have really good show notes on this for our listeners, in case this is your first introduction to this. As we wrap up our time here, Stella, you are such an amazing leader and you have spoken up, you’ve been an advocate across your entire region. What do you want people to do? What do you want people to understand how they can use their voice like you do?

Stella Ayo-Odongo 28:49
I think I’ll pick my response from a quote, or a message that I got along the work as I was doing my work. It was a result of somebody threatening, they came up to me and said, “You’re saying so much, and it’s not good for you to say all the things that you’re saying.” So I told the person that I know it’s risky to speak, but it is more risky to keep quiet. For me the message out there is that wherever your place, wherever God puts you, you’re there for a reason. You’re there to help, you’re there to speak out, especially for those who are not able to speak out for themselves. When the situation is dire for those that are experiencing trafficking, many times they do not even know, they do not even have anybody to speak out for them. So whereever God has placed you, use that space to amplify the voice of the voiceless because the majority suffer in silence. My message is we should be the voice to the silent majority, because they’re silent, not because they want to be silent, but they’re silent because they do not have the opportunities and the platforms and the spaces that we have, that we are blessed with to be able to speak out. Many times, we see things and we push it aside and say, “Lets bystand”. I know that there are people from different religious backgrounds that are listening to this. I’d like to use the story of the Good Samaritan. Many a time that story stands out because this good Samaritan stood out because he took action. So for us, who are in these places, not just to listen, but to act and because we are in those positions, we cannot act when we do not know. So get the information, get to know what experience people have, and work with the people so that you can take action. My other one is that where they are able to speak, I think we need to then hold their hands and give them spaces to speak. Because from my experience I’ve seen that building the agency of the vulnerable is the most powerful tool for advocacy. We can do all the speaking that we want to do but for as long as we do not bring the affected with us, we are doing them injustice and many times their voices actually have more impact than you’re speaking, I’ll just give a quick quick example about 2016 and starting the the campaign for Uganda to become a pathfinding country, it was difficult to reach the politicians so we did organize an interactive session where we brought Members of Parliament together with children to have a roundtable and talk about their experiences. During that session, we actually brought children to share their lived experiences. So we brought, I remember, there was a 10 year old who was abused, multiple times and then she ended up pregnant and she had a baby. Then, we had a girl, a little girl of 13 years, who had to have her uterus removed because she was sexually violated and we had a lot of these lived experiences. We also had one of child sacrifice where the child was picked and it was just a neighbor who saved the child as they were trying to cut the child’s neck and draw blood. Then, the neighbor came in, and this child now lives with a disability because of that. We brought those experiences to life, and theeir voices, the children with disabilities, who are being violated, the children who are being trafficked, those who lost organs as a result of trafficking. I mean, there are those who even lost lives, the parents who testified, that was powerful. So building the agency of the vulnerable is very, very important. Bringing them and creating space for them to speak is very, very valuable. We need to create the spaces and bring them to speak.

Sandra Morgan 33:26
Stella Ayo-Odongo, you are a blessing and we want to be partners with you. We are so grateful that you are now part of our Vanguard community and we look forward to our next conversation.

Stella Ayo-Odongo 33:44
Thank you.

Sandra Morgan 33:47
We’re inviting you now to take the next step, to go over to endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s where you can find resources we’ve mentioned in this conversation, and so much more. The anti human trafficking certificate program here is available as a tuition based undergrad, elective, or as a professional development certificate. I’m inviting you to do that. And if you haven’t visited that site before, it’s also an opportunity for you to become a subscriber and if you want to go just a step further, you can consider becoming a Patreon subscriber and support the production of the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. I’ll be back in two weeks for our next conversation.

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