Given my interest in how war affects women, I had been in awe of WAN’s (Women Advocacy Network) work with women after the war between the Ugandan Government and the armed group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The subject of reintegration of women who were abducted and taken ‘into the bush’ during the war has been poorly covered in the literature (Akello 2013, Annan et al. 2011, Mukasa 2017). However, from the available literature, we can see that most of the girls that were abducted in their young age became forced mothers and gave birth to at least two children who were conceived by rape (Bell, 2017). What interests me is what happened with forced mothers and their children after the war. What are the challenges that they are facing and who is helping them? The first mistake that I have done was thinking about who is helping them, forgetting about their own agency and coping mechanisms. The success of Supporting War Affected Women Reintegrate their Children through Family Reunions Project, that was conducted by Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN) and Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) in 2016, changed the way I saw development practice and demonstrated me the power of community participation in development projects. As preparation for this fieldwork, I have done research on the integration of forced mothers and their children. In an essay about WAN, I have read and referenced Akello (2013: 152) who described terrible things that girls and women went through while being ‘in the bush’, such as experience of a woman who ‘was forced to kill and remove the heart of a woman who had tried to escape’. However, I haven’t been ready to see and hear what I saw and heard once we arrived in Uganda.
The essay I have written as part of the preparation for this fieldwork engaged in the academic conversation regarding reintegration of girls that were abducted and became forced mothers during the war in Uganda (Ladisch, 2015). Scholarship tackled various issues including the challenges that they are facing on their return in the community. Woldetsadik (2017) argues that the main challenges are stigma, marginalization, abuse and deprivation. Other academics talked about the ways mothers mediate the social integration of their children born of rape (Shanahan and Veale, 2015), since community believes that both forced mothers and their children are possessed by an evil spirit called cen (Akello 2013). Furthermore, another challenge they face is lack of social integration of their children, as in Ugandan culture, the identity is inherited from the father. This connects to land rights issues as the land is also being inherited from the paternal family, so children born of war, later on, are considered as unable to provide for their families. This was recognized by the WAN who were experiencing themselves these issues. In order to tackle these issues, together with Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) conducted a project called Supporting War Affected Women Reintegrate their Children through Family Reunions. They identified two main issues; cen and lack of fathers’ recognition of children born of war. In order to tackle the first issue, they engaged local cultural leaders called Ajwakas who performed spiritual cleansing on both mothers and their children. As Bell (2017) argues, these rituals were crucial for the success of the entire project, as after the cleansing, they would be able to go to the next phase of the project – visiting the paternal house. The most important ritual identified by the participants of the project was Nyono tongweno (stepping on the egg). ‘The egg represents purity and spiritual harm and is understood to leave the person and follow the two sticks, the lapii, away’ (Shanahan and Veale, 2015: 77). During the project, 13 reintegration processes were conducted and it achieved one of their goals that were that the children ‘gain a more secure identity’ Bell (2017: i). Furthermore, I utilised learnt theory to engage with the project conducted by WAN and JRP. This theory of conflict analysis sees violence as a product of social learning (Jacoby, 2008). The violence in Northern Uganda was seen by WAN and JPR as a product of authority and social pressure. It is also important to mention that the project respected Acholi culture and customs, and recognized that the violence was learnt, however, the unlearning is a spiritual process. My conceptualization of the project from the literature suggested that the process of reintegration of abducted women is simple and that after the spiritual cleansing the challenges disappear. However, the situation I found in the field did not reflect this.
It was the fifth day of our fieldwork when we met with WAN and JRP. We had the honour to speak with one of the founders of WAN, Evelyn. During the LRA war she was abducted at the age of twelve and she spent eleven years in captivity. Evelyn is smart, beautiful and incredibly brave women who also played an important role in Juba Peace Talks; the negotiations between the Ugandan Government and the LRA. She was imprisoned for her involvement in the peace talks, and after Red Cross and JRP advocated for her freedom, she was released. When I met Evelyn, I realized that everything that I was reading about forced mothers; their challenges upon return and the reintegration, everything is much more complex than a piece of paper can capture and analyse. Having an opportunity to talk with her and hear her story was one of the most inspiring things on this fieldwork. It is interesting that she did mention the spiritual cleansing ritual ‘stepping on the egg’, but I got the impression that she didn’t find it crucial for the reintegration of forced mothers. Moreover, she talked about the challenges that they are still facing, and one of the most common is stigma and social rejection. Due to the stigma, a lot of women went to the city. As a group, they opened the store where they are selling home decoration, toys and clothes. During the meeting, I noticed an interesting dynamic between WAN and JRP, that I did not expect. The employee of JRP in several occasions referred to the project I wrote about in my essay, saying that the work was done by the WAN and that the JRP was just ‘supporting them from behind in technical stuff and that is why they are not victims but activists’ (JRP employee, Personal Communication, 4th April 19). Furthermore, I think it is very important that JRP together with WAN is trying to use inclusive language and instead of referring to abductees as ‘victims’ to use term ‘survivors’. In their case, the commemoration contributes to peacebuilding. They mentioned various ways in which they are commemorating the past, including drama, role play and storytelling. They also emphasized the importance of arts such as traditional songs and dances in the process of reintegration and reconciliation. As Evelyn explained, all this helps in ‘preventing the world to forget what has happened to me, but at the same time, it helps us to start a new journey’ (Evelyn, WAN, Personal Communication, 4th April 19). As I stated above, the Supporting War Affected Women Reintegrate their Children through Family Reunions Project was mentioned a couple of times during conversation, we learned that so far there were 45 successful family reunions. What was interesting to me is that they presented the project as a success even though the women still face a lot of stigma and rejection after the spiritual cleansing and ‘family reunions’. In addition, I am sceptical about the positive impacts of ‘family reunions’ with paternal clans. How can something that is characterized as ‘forced’ and was build up involuntarily can be called ‘family reunion’ and be considered as a success? I appreciate the fact that in Acholi culture the identity is passed on through the paternal clan and not knowing or living with the paternal clan means that children born of war will never own their own land. However, I argue that this can also be a trigger for domestic violence as ‘family’ never lived peacefully together and women are probably still in fear of their ‘forced husbands’. Also, as I mentioned above, the unlearning of the violence is a spiritual process in Acholi culture, however, when asked about the procedures with individuals that keep committing various crimes, including gender-based violence, the answer was not clear. It seemed that they don’t have established procedures for recurring incidents done by the same individuals who do not show remorse.
To sum up, while being in Uganda, I have realized that it is impossible to capture the complexity of reintegration of abducted women in a post-conflict setting. By meeting Evelyn, I have realized that every article, book and number about LRA conflict has its human face and shape, and as long as one does not look at that face, she/he won’t be able to understand and feel the pain of survivors. In the literature, this issue was discussed in a simplified manner, presenting spiritual cleansing as the key to the reintegration of the abductees. However, Evelyn and JRP employee did not emphasize this process as crucial, since women still face the same challenges as before. However, they said that the project was successful; so far they conducted 45 family reunions. I wonder if that is a success? I am wondering if the women and children who got ‘reunited’ with paternal clan would see this as a success. I found it interesting that instead of spiritual cleansing, they mentioned the success of arts in reintegration processes couple of times, and this inspired me to research this further for my masters dissertation. I left Uganda with better understanding of the situation, but at the same time, with many more questions that I hope will find the answers to during my dissertation research.
written by Anita Pavić, WAVE Youth Ambassador from Croatia/UK
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Featured image: Safari. Photographed by fellow student, permission given.