Molly Namirembe

ILO National Project Coordinator in Kampala

“I knew it was upon me to speak my truth - no one else would. Because they haven’t gone through it. Because, for them, 2 million children who are suffering are just a number. Because they haven’t been there.”

3 stats

An estimated 22% of children in Uganda are in child labour, including the worst forms such as commercial sexual exploitation and gold mining

Nearly 95% of those children work in agriculture - that’s why the government is implementing an accelerator programme to eliminate child labour in supply chains, especially in the coffee and tea sectors.

Gaps in the legal framework to address child labor persist, including inadequate laws regulating the minimum age for employment - children as young as 12 are legally able to work

story, feel, school, share, speak, pray, uganda, support, activist, talk

If a child shared their story of abuse and sexual exploitation with you, how would you react?Molly, a former child labourer herself, was once too nervous to share her own story with a group of other young people.It was her first day of her internship with local NGO Somero Uganda. She was in her final year of university. Clearly, she had made it.

The facilitator gathered all the youth in the room and asked them to sit in a circle. Then, one by one, he asked each young person to share something about his or her childhood. When it was Molly’s turn, she couldn’t speak. In that instant, she realized that she had never talked about her time in child labour with anyone, ever.

From the classroom to a tea plantation

Molly was born in Masaka, in central Uganda. A market town, Masaka is an important commercial centre for the surrounding coffee-growing area. Her father died when she was just two years old, but she has fond early memories of life with her mother and sister.

“I remember telling her that I wanted to go to the best university in Uganda,” Molly reminisced. “And I remember her response was that she would do everything in her power - even if it meant selling her clothes - so that I could go.”

Then, when Molly was 11 years old, the unthinkable happened. Her mother got sick.

“It could have been malaria, typhoid. We took her to the hospital and she was getting better, we thought she would be discharged, but then she died the following day.”

Suddenly, Molly was parentless - and directionless. It wasn’t even clear who would take care of her and her sister. They went back to their empty home, where a stranger was waiting for them.

“An old man that owned a tea plantation near us offered us work,” she recalled. “So I would work on the farm in the morning, go to school, and then come back to work some more. We were paid per basket, so we harvested as much as we could.”

But then, she dropped out of school. Although Ugandan law provides for free education up to the age of 13, the cost of school supplies, uniforms, and other materials prevented her from continuing. A lack of adequate school infrastructure and transportation options create extra barriers for children like Molly.

“Even when I was on the farm, I really wanted to go back to school,” Molly smiled. “So I would sometimes get my friends’ books and copy the notes, just copy whatever they had learned. It was my way of catching up.”

From a tea plantation to the classroom

Molly bounced around her aunties and uncles’ homes for a while, before finally finding one to take her in full time. Shortly after, her grandmother sold a plot of land and divided up the shares among her grandchildren. Finally, after nearly three years of working half- and full-time to pay for her basic needs, as well as new secondary school requirements like books and uniforms - Molly was able to go back to school at the age of 13.

“My favorite subjects were English (because it wasn’t hard), computers (I remember the first time I touched one), and entrepreneurship (that one resonated with me),” she said.

Despite the odds, Molly managed to finish her secondary education and complete a university degree in social work, which brings us to her life-changing internship at Somero Uganda.

“The executive director was a SCREAM trainer, and I was meant to be a facilitator with him,” she reflected.

During her internship, Molly was trained on how to use the methodology and was tasked with providing sessions for young people aged 14 to 25. Afterward, Molly stayed on as a volunteer and, in that role, she reached out to kids as young as 8.]

“He was asking very young people to share their stories. When my time came to share, I realized I couldn’t share anything with the public about my life.”

Later, her supervisor pulled her aside and asked her to confide in him. It was an emotional moment for Molly. It was the first time she shared her story.

He followed up with her every day, encouraging her to share it more widely. Slowly, Molly came to a simple conclusion: She couldn’t give these young people money or send them to school or buy them clothes, but she could offer them a safe space and an empathetic ear.

“I went to visit a slum where commercial sex workers were living with their children,” she said. “For me, it was quite challenging, and sometimes I would get emotional. Because I know what they’re talking about.”

Her work was hard but rewarding. She ended up sharing her story on the global stage in 2019, during the International Labour Conference in Geneva. And, although she’s out of it now, child labour will always be a part of her life.

Molly is a force for change; she has dedicated her life to helping children get out of child labour and reskill for different, safe jobs. In her career, she has coordinated efforts to withdraw more than 1,000 children from child labour and prepare them with skills for safer, decent jobs when they are of legal working age. She has led more than 30 local training sessions for government officials, teachers, and children with a focus on child labour. And she has participated in TV and newspaper campaigns that advocate for child protection.

“It’s empowering. And it gives me a feeling of gratitude. I try to give them hope, like, if she got out of it, I can do it too - but this process also gives me hope.”

How can I help?

Here are Molly’s top tips for budding activists: