“MY BIRTH REALLY WAS A SCANDAL—my aunt and others in the village were very disappointed,” Agnes Igoye says with a laugh, but only half-jokingly.
Igoye was one of six daughters (and two sons) born into a culture that typically devalues female children. From a young age, she endured taunts and disparaging comments from men. Her childhood was also marked by Uganda’s brutal civil wars, and in the late 1980s her family had to flee their village after it came under attack from the violent rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army and ended up living in a camp.
But through all this, Igoye had an unusual advantage: both her parents were teachers who believed in the importance of education for girls. And she was moved from an early age by the importance of protecting the weak, especially women, from abuse.
“I said to my mother,” Igoye remembers, “‘I’m going to work really hard in life, and embarrass these men by being successful!’”
Igoye has woven those strands of her life—education, achievement, protection—together as she has become a national and even global figure in the fight against human trafficking. Today she is Uganda’s deputy national coordinator for prevention of trafficking in persons. She is also the training manager for the Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control. Her work extends across 13 ministries, directorates, and agencies. And she has founded a program that gives displaced women a place to live. “I’m committed to being a voice for the survivors of human trafficking,” Igoye says.
Igoye joined the battle to combat trafficking as soon as she graduated from Makerere University, then the only university in Uganda. She started in Uganda’s Immigration Services Department. Today, her work has expanded to training counter-trafficking agents and liaising with the media and various non-governmental organizations.
Victims of trafficking are often deceived by their captors, who make false promises of jobs, education, or travel to young people who have rarely had any of those opportunities. In Uganda, trafficking can include child marriage, forced labor, and the conscription of child soldiers. Part of Igoye’s work lies in combating the cultural prejudices against victims.
In 2009, Igoye received the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship from the U.S. Department of State and spent a year at the University of Minnesota connecting with and learning from other anti-trafficking professionals. She has continued to strengthen those relationships, going on speaking tours in the United States and elsewhere to raise awareness of trafficking and share what she has learned in the field.
Igoye’s passion extends beyond victims of trafficking: she has worked with women displaced by the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army. In 2013, she founded the Huts for Peace program, which helps displaced women build their own homes using locally sourced materials. To date, the program has provided housing for more than 20 displaced families, many of which include children who have lost relatives to the war.
In 2016, Igoye received a $50,000 award from the Diller-Diane von Furstenberg Foundation to build a center for survivors of human trafficking. “That was a dream,” she says, explaining that survivors of trafficking often have few resources available to them after escaping their situations. “I would pick people up in the night and bring them to my house,” she says. “It was a bit uncomfortable, because I was living with my mother and sister, and these women would be in my family’s space. But I didn’t have anywhere else to take them. And the next morning, they would be gone.” Igoye hopes the center will provide a safe place for women to stay, in addition to programming and resources to help them obtain employment and education.
Igoye may have spent only a year in Cambridge, but she took full advantage of the chance to hone her skills. “I took some writing courses and I spoke extensively, both inside and outside the University,” she says. “I learned how to speak publicly, and it shows. That’s what Harvard has given me: that creativity, that confidence.” She has stayed in touch with several classmates, some of whom have visited her to see her work on the ground and provide support. “We are connected and we support each other,” she says.
While Igoye is clear-eyed about the problems facing formerly trafficked Ugandans, she also has a fierce faith in her community, especially her countrywomen.
“I believe they can solve their own problems,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s really we the people who have to take charge of our lives and come up with our own solutions. The opportunities are enormous.” And she’s not going to miss a single one.