At Christmas, many of us will look forward to spending time with family and friends. But for millions of women and girls, home is not a place of safety and refuge. Instead, it's the most dangerous place in the world.

Women and girls have the right to be safe and secure, wherever they are. That starts with their homes. But one in three women worldwide will be beaten or sexually abused in their lifetime.

Newspaper headlines might focus on attacks by strangers - the unknown silhouette down a dark alley. But abuse is most likely to be perpetrated by someone known to the survivor. A trusted family member. A husband or boyfriend. A neighbour... A 'friend'.

Here are the stories of the incredible women and girls who ActionAid is working with to change lives.

Here are their stories of survival, of hope, of trauma and recovery... of inspirational female leaders who won't stop until women and girls everywhere are safe.

'Betty'

"All these houses are empty. We are the only ones left here, because of the incident.”

On the 10th January 2016, seven-year-old Betty* was discovered by her mother Vivienne. Betty was unconscious, on the ground and covered in the blood.

Betty had been playing at a neighbour's house with three friends, when her 26-year-old cousin called her over to him. He invited her into his house, saying he wanted to give her something.

When it started getting dark, Vivienne began calling Betty. She didn't answer. Vivienne decided to walk over and collect Betty. It was then that she found her "already dumped outside," Vivienne says.

"She was just lying next to that house, unconscious, and her body was full of blood. I carried her, and ran to the police with her."

Betty's cousin had locked the doors from inside his house and raped her.

Vivienne rushed her daughter to the hospital for emergency treatment. They didn't have the urgent HIV test available, so Vivienne bought it herself. She still remembers the lights from the equipment flashing red, then green - equipment she didn't understand. She thought in that moment that her daughter was going to die.

"[She was] badly off, severely injured - I thought I was going to lose her. I thought the next minute, life was going to go out of her."

Vivienne and Betty stayed in the hospital for two and a half months. It was there that Vivienne got in touch with ActionAid. When Betty was discharged from hospital, they were both transferred to the ActionAid shelter in Gulu, where they received clothing, hot meals, medical treatment, counselling and legal support, as well as a safe place to stay.

"That is when I saw some hope," Vivienne says. She could begin to relax.

Betty's attacker had been released but upon taking up the case, ActionAid made sure he was arrested the following day. "Without ActionAid, the perpetrator would have just been free, moving freely in this community. With the strength ActionAid put in...following up the case, that’s why he is detained, and now he’s in prison."

When they returned home, Betty and Vivienne felt fearful. Their wider family have since moved away from the area. They had wanted to sit as a family and negotiate after the incident, and were unhappy Vivienne took the rapist to court.

But Vivienne says ActionAid staff give them comfort and allow them to feel safe at home. Staff from the shelter still follow up with them, to give counselling and check how they're doing. Betty still has some long-term health problems, but she's doing well.

"Without ActionAid, women and girls would be going through violence frequently," Vivienne says, "but now I see with ActionAid together we can fight violence against women and girls."

*Names have been changed to protect identities

'Kavita'

“He used to threaten my daughter and take her away and abuse her…He used to say I will harm your mother and your sister if you tell.”

Kavita and her daughter Sushmita live in the Indian city of Bhopal. Sushmita's exams were coming up when she was being harassed by a local man. He'd been following her home.

To avoid him, Sushmita left to go and study at her aunt's house. It was then that the man abducted and raped her.

Worried about her mother's reaction, Sushmita kept the rape a secret. It wasn't until she was four months pregnant, hiding herself under baggy jumpers, that Kavita found out.

Kavita went to the police, who told her to file a complaint and hire a lawyer, but she couldn't afford to pay for one. Then she heard about the Gauravi One-Stop Crisis Centre, supported by ActionAid.

The staff at the centre sheltered Sushmita, who is under 18, and cared for her. She received food, counselling, financial and legal support. They helped her give birth safely, and helped put the baby up for adoption so she could carry on with her education.

"Without their help, my daughter would not have survived what happened to her," Kavita says.

“I want her to lead her life well, I want her to study well, I want her to get a job and to be able to stand on her own two feet.”

The trial for Sushmita's perpetrator is upcoming. Her family are waiting for the next hearing.

Agnes

Agnes was 16 when she was attacked by two men in the night. She had been at a market near her home in Uganda with her cousin, when she went to use the toilet at 10pm. She saw a man coming towards her but before she could shout out, he had grabbed her.

Agnes was dragged into a bush, raped and left unconscious. A man found her there in the morning, after hearing her cries.

She was taken to a hospital, where she was put on a drip and given urgent medical attention. She stayed there for three days.

“The police said that I should make a statement, but by then I could not talk.”

After leaving the hospital, Agnes continued to bleed. The police recommended she visit one of ActionAid’s ten shelters in Uganda, where she was supported with counselling and medical care. 

The attackers were arrested just one day after the rape, but Agnes says that due to police corruption, it took five years for her eventually get justice. At times she felt there was no hope, and began to feel suicidal.

An ActionAid worker, Salsa, continued to put pressure on the police despite the corruption in the system: the police even once alleged they had lost her case file.

In August 2018, Agnes’ attackers were finally sentenced to 10 years in imprisonment. Agnes cried when she heard the judgement.

"I was still weak physically and emotionally, I was also broken, but I became strong. I cannot forget what happened, but I am strong."

She is now very protective over her young daughter. When she grows up, Agnes wants her to become a lawyer, promoting justice and peace to women and young girls in the community.

This Christmas

This Christmas, ActionAid is asking for your support, to help us reach as many women as possible who are survivors of violence, or could be at risk.

A monthly donation can help us run Crisis Centres like those in India and Uganda, so women and girls like Betty, Kavita and Agnes can be protected from harm.

We won't stop until we see an end to violence against women and girls. Please join us.

Donate to help support crisis centres

Photos: Karin Schermbrucker; Smita Sharma/ActionAid

1All Statistics: Uganda Demographic and Health Survey 2016, Uganda Bureau of Statistics

To protect identities, names have been changed, and photographs have been anonymised.