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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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Women bear the brunt of LRA insurgents

Testimonies of girls and women about their experiences of the long-running war in Northern Uganda are taking increasingly ominous tones.
Joy Okech

“I was given to a senior commander as a fourth wife. My duties were to provide food and baby-sit for his other wives. I was also given a gun as I was expected to fight in case of any attacks and would sometimes be sent on patrols.”, narrates Lillian Abwol

Abwol is one among thousands of girls who have fallen victim to rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army [LRA] led by Joseph Kony. But unlike many others, Abwol was released after her “husband” died. But her freedom is cast in a dark shadow of the harrowing experiences she underwent as a captive. She witnessed children being killed. Many are the times she walked for days without food or water.

The conflict in northern Uganda is taking a heavy toll on women and children. Mass displacement and destruction of families are some of the major effects of the long-running conflict.

Ironically, women and girls - the worst affected victims - have no part in either starting such conflicts or prolonging them. Yet they are subjected to displacement, sexual abuse and psychological trauma. Feelings of anxiety, despair and hopelessness are widespread. Many are pessimistic about ever seeing an end to the seemingly endless cycles of conflict and violence.

Kony’s 18-year rebellion to the Uganda government has triggered immense population displacement. Rebels attack and burn camps for displaced people almost at will, making a mockery of President Yoweri Museveni’s oft-stated pledge to crush the insurgence.

The sexual abuse and violence to which young girls are subjected in captivity leaves lasting psychological as well as physical scars. The war has created wounds in the hearts of women. Most have lost their children and are bearing the pain alone. While some sit and wait for the return of their children, others have lost hope of ever seeing their children again.

Mary’s 13-year-old daughter was abducted in 1999. She has not been seen or heard from since. “My daughter’s abduction brings bitterness and pain into my life. I don’t know if she is still alive and I have partly given up hoping for her return...I leave her life in God’s hands,” she says amid sobs.

According to the United Nations, the situation in Northern Uganda has deteriorated since 2002. The number of people in need - 80 per cent of them women and children - has doubled and the sheer scale of the crisis is stretching UNICEF’s resources in Uganda to the breaking point.

Each night, at least 50,000 people - most of them women and children - flee their homes for the relative safety of town centres. Efforts to provide them with security are inadequate. The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children says that young commuters face an increased risk of HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancies as a result of sexual violence or unprotected sex.

Rape, which is an abuse of women’s human rights, is used as a weapon to disable young girls from the society. Over one third of the girls have been raped while 18 percent have given birth. And having already suffered the trauma of rape, women who become pregnant as a result of it face additional emotional and psychological trauma.

Mareelyn was forced to live with a rebel commander for two years. By the time she escaped, she was six months pregnant. Running back home brought no joy. Mareelyn was further traumatized. Other than her mother and close family members, the rest of the society avoided her as they feared for their lives in case the rebel commander returned to claim his “family”.

“I had no one to talk to for I was a total outcast. I would have nightmares of people being killed and people raping me. It was bad because the dreams haunted me even during the day,” Mareelyn confesses.

Although sexual violence has been a part of this war, it has not been publicized well. There is little knowledge of the magnitude of the problem and how it can be prevented. Most rape victims are left to deal with the situation on their own because there is little or no help offered.

For northern Ugandan women, the experience of rape has disrupted their sense of community and alienated them from other people. As a result they have formed groups that focus on development projects to erase past experiences.

Most women are using their roles as caregivers to support peace in their homes and communities. Many have joined efforts to promote peace.

Since displacement has undermined many traditions of social support, women are working with elders and traditional leaders to revive cultural institutions and to prepare the community for reconciliation and reintegration. Despite these efforts in restoring peace, women are excluded from official programs of addressing the war such as negotiations.

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