opinion

Loy, 5, should be going to school. Instead she’s going to bed hungry.

Monday 11 October 2021 is International Day of the Girl. To help Mamamia in supporting the world's most disadvantaged women and girls to learn how to read, you can donate to Room to Read here.

Before the world shut, I travelled to Uganda to meet my sponsor child – a little girl called Loy. 

It was the most fulfilling, genuine and honest connection I have ever made. 

Back home in WA, I look at Loy’s photo every day. The pandemic has been rough on all of us in Australia, but I know her community is enduring far harsher conditions and far worse consequences – food shortages, loss of jobs, child labour, child marriage and strained healthcare systems – as a result of COVID-19.

Loy’s kind eyes stare back at me from the photo, unaware of all this. Knowing I can help keep her safe has become a ray of light for me, when everything seems exhausting and hard.

How the world has changed since that hot, dry day I first met her!

After six hours of driving I arrived in Loy's town, Buwunga, and was swept up by the single and dancing of the community who had turned out to meet me. 

It was overwhelming as it was heart-warming. 

Watch: UN Power Moves. Credit: UN Women. Post continues below...


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I danced with them and they roared and cheered and egged me on, and I couldn’t help laughing at myself – I knew my moves were nothing compared to their rhythms. Dancing created an unforgettable moment of joyful togetherness. It was a welcome like no other.

After the celebration a few community members walked me to Loy’s home, a modest one-room brick house at the outskirts of town. 

Loy’s mother Harriet ran out to me, arms outstretched, her smile wide, with Loy on her hip. Loy was only two then, quiet and observant. I instantly adored her.

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Jess with Loy. Image: Supplied.

I also felt an immediate connection with Harriet and Andrew, Loy’s parents. They were warm and kind, and with Loy and her baby sister, Praise, we sat together and ate jackfruit. 

I gave Loy a toy koala which she kissed on the nose, and she carried her “baby” around for the rest of the day.  

That afternoon Harriett and Andrew told me how my sponsorship was helping the community. Some of my money had gone towards building a women’s health facility where Praise was born. 

Before this, women gave birth at home, often leading to birthing complications and death. It filled my heart to know that the baby sitting next to Loy had been safely delivered thanks in part from funds I had given. 

As I watched Loy patting Praise’s little head, her chubby fingers getting caught in the black curls, I saw a beautiful future of friendship and love unfolding between these sisters.

Sitting with Loy’s family, eating together, and discussing our hopes for Loy and Praise was one of the most rewarding moments of my life. Andrew, Harriett and I wanted just one thing: to help these girls grow healthy, strong and safe. 

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Two years later, the issues facing vulnerable communities like theirs are multifaceted — and to be honest, really scary. 

Millions of parents and caregivers including those in Loy’s community have lost incomes due to COVID-19. The once thriving community is now suffering food shortages. Children go to bed hungry. It’s heartbreaking.

Uganda like so many parts of the world is facing a hunger crisis.

This situation is forcing parents to expose their children to harmful and dangerous practices, such as begging. 

Many children in Loy’s community who danced with me are now working in sugar cane fields to help support their families.

School lockdowns have a far greater impact in Uganda than in Australia. Young girls entering puberty, who should be receiving an education and the means to build a better life, are instead getting married and, sadly, falling pregnant.

World Vision works hard to get these girls back in school, but they often feel obligated to stay with their new husband – usually a lot older – or get trapped in abusive situations. 

Over the next 10 years the United Nations Family Planning Association (UNFPA) forecasts an additional 13 million child marriages due to COVID-19, on top of the 150 million already predicted.

Loy is too young to know about this and I am so thankful my sponsorship will help prevent this horror from becoming her reality.

In this new, uncertain world I find comfort in knowing that despite closed borders, I am still connected to Loy and her family. 

I send Loy letters with little stories from my life and she (with help from Harriet) lets me know she is safe and happy in kindergarten.

On this International Day of the Girl I hope that Loy celeb rates by eating fresh jackfruit and playing with Praise. I hope she knows that on the other side of the world I am cheering her on. I hope she will grow strong and independent. I hope my donations help her community to get through this devastating time.

Having Loy in my life has changed me as a person. Through giving to her, I become my best self. Knowing Loy gives me hope at a time when we need it more than ever.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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