Deborah’s Story

Attorney Deborah Akello, Founder and Director of WAGRAU
Attorney Deborah Akello, Founder and Director of WAGRAU

My Name is Deborah Akello.  I am an attorney, and to understand my career choice, and later the driving force behind the establishment of WAGRAU, allow me tell you a small story about myself.

I was born in a family of 7 children, myself being the 6th Child. While my mother was working as a cleaning lady at a government office, the district chief of staff had an affair with her. When she became pregnant he had her fired. My mother had no other means of sustaining her livelihood so she returned to her village of Serere, wherein she gave birth to me.

Growing up, my mother (Mama Hellen) used to make alcohol to support us. By the age of 8 years I had learned how to make the local brew called ‘ajon’. My mother is a very talkative and friendly person and she was the best alcohol seller in Serere in the early 2000s. She had the most customers and I was her right hand girl. She started buying another locally made spirit called ‘Kasese’ that was made in Kampala,  as well as bottled beer. 

Deborah’s home growing up. Her mom Mama Hellen in the foreground.
Deborah’s home growing up. Her mom Mama Hellen in the foreground.

One of my mother’s customers was the director of the government agricultural research center in Serere. And he went on to become my mother’s boyfriend. One evening right after closing the bar, my mother went to the bus stop to pick up the Kasese spirit she had ordered from her supplier in Kampala. I went into my mother’s room to pull out my mat and bedsheets and that is when my mother’s boyfriend forced himself upon me. I pushed him and given that he was drunk, he fell back onto the bed. I ran towards the bus stage wherein I was able to tell my mother what had transpired. My mother now was the one running back home as I stayed watching over our jerricans full of Kasese alcohol. By the time I returned home my mother had beaten her boyfriend, and I found him with a swollen eye.  My mother’s boyfriend had a government provided car and driver which made him a very powerful and respected person. 

The next morning I got up at my usual time of 5:30 am to sweep the compound, fetch water from the borehole, and wash last night’s dinner dishes before heading off to school. When I came home, my mother told me she had talked to a police officer about the possibility of filling a case against her boyfriend, but she was told that her boyfriend had already reached out to the head of police and reported that my mother was planning to accuse him of sexually abusing me as retaliation for him leaving her. My mother’s boyfriend had also stopped by and told my mother that he would destroy her if she dared to come against him.

When I got an opportunity to study, I set out to seek revenge. In my 6th year of high school, I had to choose a profession that I intended on pursuing when I got to university. To me, being a lawyer was my ultimate path towards revenge against my mother’s boyfriend. I had a plan which was either to prosecute him myself, or pay someone to kill him. I was so consumed with the idea of revenge that I would cry about it almost every day. 

Inspiration for WAGRAU: Apio

Deborah Akello while in Law School
Deborah Akello while in Law School

After beginning law school, I joined International Justice Mission University Chapter Club, wherein I served as the president of the chapter in my 4th year of law school. Through the IJM Club, we would do outreach in the poor rural communities around the university,  and we would meet widows and orphans who were losing property such as land, houses, chairs, beds and even clothing to family members of the deceased husband or father. They could not afford lawyers.  We were still students, and as such could not represent them in court, but we gave free legal advice, and they were deeply grateful. We would draft court documents for them and even go with them to court to help them file, and even pay the required court fees. We also would teach the communities laws relating to successions and inheritance, will writing, marriage and division of property of the deceased. 

During my law school breaks I volunteered at the court, wherein I would help the magistrate do research, take notes during court sessions, and even write draft rulings. One day, there was a bail hearing for a 75 year old man accused of raping his 7 year old grandaughter. In the back was a man and a woman holding hands together with 4 other people and all were crying. It was my first week going to court and I was hearing of this case for the very first time. The magistrate told the parties that he would give his ruling the next day. Court was closed and I started walking home. The people crying in the back of the courtroom were walking the same direction as I. When I caught up with them, the woman invited me to visit her daughter, who was the victim of the case, in the hospital. I had not read their file beforehand, and I had no idea what the case was about. I agreed to go with them to the hospital as it was on my way home, and I thought  it wouldn’t hurt to go into the ward. However, I was so wrong because it hurts me to this day. In the hospital lay Apio, a 7-year-old girl badly injured. This is when I learned she had been raped by the old man seeking bail. Her parents told me that the younger brother of the accused man had bribed the magistrate to grant him bail. I could not believe the magistrate would do such a thing, and I asked them for proof.  They had none but insisted that a close relative had tipped them off.

The next day I listened in horror, as the magistrate read his ruling granting the old man bail. I don’t remember standing up, the only thing I can recall are my last words which were to the effect  “I WILL REPORT YOU TO JUDICIAL SERVICE COMMISSION”!   Later I learned that I had told him that he had no jurisdiction to listen to a capital offense case such as this one, let alone the power to grant bail, and that whatever he was paid he should give it back. I told him that a child was dying in the hospital because of the monster he set free. I asked him if he would have accepted the bribe had it been his own granddaughter. I stormed out and walked back home. I passed by the hospital and checked on the little girl Apio. 

A few weeks later Apio died of an infection from her injuries, because her family could not afford to transport her to the next town to get the needed surgery. I think about her so much. She changed my life. I began to realize that I was not the only girl who suffered injustice. So many people, especially women in my community, suffer terrible injustice, and because they are poor, uneducated, can’t afford a lawyer, and not informed on what their rights are, they too live with the consequences. I realized that I had been blessed with the opportunity to study, and as such I owe it to them to use my studies for good. I realized that I was called to be a human rights lawyer. Growing up seeing what I thought was a normal way of treating women, beating them, girls being married off at an early age, widows and their children being deprived of their properties, I was not just going to be a human rights lawyer but rather a womens’, girls’ and childrens’ rights lawyer.

Deborah Akello (left) with some of the young women in WAGRAU’s Tailoring Program
Deborah Akello (left) with some of the young women in WAGRAU’s Tailoring Program

WAGRAU Incorporation and Programs

Deborah facilitating one of WAGRAU’s Economic Empowerment Groups
Deborah facilitating one of WAGRAU’s Economic Empowerment Groups

WAGRAU was officially registered In 2019.  In the beginning I thought it was important that we address the underlying causes of injustice, which mainly rested upon the patriarchal societal norms that discriminate against women, rather than going to court. Norms and customs that have for long limited women to the private sphere of life with roles such as child bearing, caring for the elderly and sick. While men control the public sphere of life, such as entrepreneurship, leadership, inheritance and production of land. For example;  women are the primary source of labor on land in Serere but they have no control over the wealth generated by their work. They are the ones digging during agricultural seasons, and girls are often kept home from school to help their mothers. The women plant, weed, harvest and dry the produce, but it is the men who sell it and determine how the money is spent. In rural Uganda women have no rights over land. This therefore was the reasoning behind our agricultural project in which we rent  land for a group of women, provide them with seeds to plant, and have them provide the needed labor. When they harvest, they set aside seeds for the next season. They are able to raise food for their families, sell the rest and divide the money raised. We require them to save 50% of the money they earn in the first year. After the first year each of the women shall start a personal business using the money they saved. This business is to sustain her and her children during the non-agricultural season. Other programs we have created include skills training, specifically tailoring. We have supported and advised other women’s groups to help them start small businesses such as pig raising, and brick making (traditionally done by men). In total we have about 105 women that we are working with to start their own businesses, either individually or in groups.

Deborah with young woman’s newborn baby, who is part of WAGARU’s programing
Deborah with young woman’s newborn baby, who is part of WAGARU’s programing

We also run a small temporary shelter that mainly takes in teenage and young women that get pregnant.  Usually when a girl gets pregnant the father often chases the girl away from home. They seek temporary accommodation from us which doesn’t exceed 2 weeks. During this time, we engage the family, especially the father. We usually mediate with the family to take her back as we enroll her into our skilling program. Sometimes the fear of welcoming another mouth that requires feeding into the already struggling family could be the cause of abandoning the teenage mother.  But when she has a skill that will help her earn a living and support herself, her child and the rest of the family as well, she will be welcomed back home. 

Building on that foundation, in 2021 I started providing legal representation to women and girls as part of the work of WAGRAU. The women I represent seek legal advice on many issues, but the most common cases involve domestic violence, defilement of a child by a family member, rape, property grabbing (which especially affects widows), wrongful use of property by the husbands to secure loans without the consent of the wife, property sharing after separation or divorce, inheritance, and denial of wages. Since 2021, we have advised 98 women and are representing 18 women in court. Because of my experience with Apio, and seeing corruption in the legal system that works against the poor is the reason that I always ask the court to allow me to be on “watching brief”.  We have been able to settle/mediate 20 cases. 

Deborah Akello

Next year we will be applying to the Uganda Law Council to get legal aid status, and hopefully recruit one or two more lawyers to join WAGRAU, and thereby help more women and girls attain justice.  We also plan to launch a scholarship initiative to help girls with aptitude and the desire to learn to attain higher education.  Many families choose not to educate their daughters because of limited resources and a strong traditional preference to educate boys and not girls. They believe that a girl shall marry and become property of her husband and as such it will be the husband who benefits from that girl in the end and not her family.  But we know that when a girl has the opportunity to develop her intellect, and reach her full potential, this benefits not only herself and her family, but the entire community. My life is an example of what can happen when we invest in a poor girl.

Deborah in school

Deborah goes to school in her new uniform.
Deborah goes to school in her new uniform.
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