Throughout the 20 year conflict in Northern Uganda, thousands of mainly Acholi and Lango young women and girls as young as 8 years old have been abducted from their villages by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and taken into the bush where they are trained to fight, and are forced into domestic and sexual slavery.
Life in the bush is a devastating and traumatic experience for these children. Through the duration of their captivity, girls are expected to obey all commands made by LRA commanders, which often involve their active participation in village raids, the beating and abduction of other children and innocent civilians, and even the killing of their own friends and family. If these girls refuse to obey the commanders, or try to escape, they will be brutally beaten and risk being killed.
“The only way to avoid violence is to follow orders.”
Quote from a young Ugandan girl who escaped cativity
Younger girls are often assigned to specific commanders as domestic servants. These servants must begin their burdensome workload before dawn and work late into the evening. As part of their daily routine, they walk long distances in search of food and firewood, and they must tend to the commanders’ children. Like the girls who refuse to fight, those who refuse to work also risk being beaten to death or assaulted by commanders or their wives who themselves were similarly brutalized when they were abducted at a young age.
Once girls reach adolescence, they are forced to become the “wives” of commanders, and are subjected to rape and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS.
85% of girls who arrived at the Gulu trauma center for former LRA abductees contracted sexually transmitted diseases during their captivity.- United Nations
In addition to the physical and psychological wounds of being a “wife,” these girls are also faced with the possibility of unwanted pregnancies. When girls become pregnant, they must experience the dangers of delivering their babies in the bush without medical attention, and with only other girls to assist them. Those who live through the delivery have to worry not only about how they will feed themselves, but also about how they will feed and care for their children. Often hungry and malnourished, girl mothers must also carry their children for miles through the jungles of Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan, as the LRA is always running from the encroaching Ugandan army. Many of these girls and their children die in the bush of starvation and dehydration.
For some girls, becoming a ‘wife” can bring a few privileges over being a domestic servant. They often work fewer hours, they may receive better food, and are protected from broader physical and sexual violence. Also, once they have children they may be exempt from participating in village raids or fighting. However, if their “husbands” die in battle, their privileges disappear and they become vulnerable to beatings and sexual abuse from other commanders once again.
Girls who are released from captivity, or who manage to escape from the LRA are often faced with numerous challenges upon their return to their home villages. Some girls return home to discover that their parents have been killed in a raid, or that their family has joined the ranks of the 1.6 million displaced peoples in Northern Uganda. For the girls who do reunite with their family and community, they are not always received with open arms - especially if they return home with their children.
Many girl mothers experience rejection and insecurity when trying to reintegrate back into their old communities.
They are stigmatized by their community and have a difficult time providing for themselves and their children. Often, the presence of their children makes it very difficult for them to deny their experiences with the LRA and the ways in which their circumstances have violated community norms. For example, the fact that they had under-age and unmarried sexual relations, regardless of the fact that they were sexually assaulted, makes their acceptance by their community difficult.
Also, the majority of communities are dealing with the painful memories of losing loved ones and family members, and may identify the girls as perpetrators of their own loss and suffering, and may be fearful of them or target them as a result.
Since many girls have lived in captivity for a number of years, they return home both looking and behaving like quite different people than their parents remember, and they may consequentially be treated as outcasts.
Life in the bush demands that girls learn how to survive and be self-sufficient. The behaviors that they develop for survival are often divergent from community and gender norms, which hinder their acceptance and reintegration into the lives they once knew.
From abduction to reintegration, these young girls face challenges of immense proportions in their short lives. Without drastic national and international action, the future of these girls and their children is uncertain.
War Child Canada Projects Making a Difference
War Child Canada, through the Acholi Education Initiative (AEI), supports child-mothers by providing scholarships for education and related materials such as school uniforms, books and pens for the duration of their three-year secondary school program. Girl-mothers are given access to psychological support, counseling services and resources to meet their basic needs such as food, shelter, childcare and healthcare.
Want to Learn More?
1. Amnesty International: Violence Against Women in Uganda
2. Migration Information Source: Surrounded. Women and Girls in Northern Uganda
3. Human Rights Watch Report: Abducted and Abused: Renewed Conflict in Northern Uganda
4. Act for Stolen Children