It is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflict.” Those words, uttered by Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, a UN force commander in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2008, focus attention of the world on heinous crimes committed against women during conflict.
Unfortunately, they were uttered eight years after the United Nations first moved to put the security of women high on its agenda by passing the UN Security Council Resolution 1325. The resolution specifically seeks to address the impact of armed conflict on women and increase their participation in peace efforts and post-conflict reconstruction.
October marked ten years since Resolution 1325 was passed. Yet Cammaert's assertion cannot only be said of DRC.
As modern wars continue seeking to bring civilians to frontline situations, women bear the devastating consequences of actions that they, in most cases, have no clue about.
In Uganda, women have suffered in the west, where Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) operated, and in the north and east where various conflicts, especially the two-decade long Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebellion, have raged.
Several agencies have documented mass rapes that have been inflicted on Ugandan women by both rebels and government soldiers during the different wars.
A 2005 United Nations Children's Fund study found that at least 60 percent of women in Pabo, one of the largest Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) camps in northern Uganda had suffered sexual or domestic violence.
Hellen Amuge's home in Amuria district, eastern Uganda, has been attacked numerous times by Karimojong cattle rustlers and rebels. In 1987, the 46-year old woman was raped by rebels, witnessed the killing of her father, and the torture of her family members. She was later displaced from her home to Soroti town after an attack by the LRA in 2003. Amuge contracted HIV from the several sexual violations.
The effects of these massive sexual violations extend far beyond its direct victims, insidiously tearing apart families and shattering communities. Amuge's family blames her for her suffering. She is one of many women who have been kicked out of their homes over their HIV positive status and no one appears to understand their plight.
Promotion of the rights of such sexually violated women is central to UNSCR 1325 but Uganda has done little to address their concerns and needs.
When First Deputy Prime Minister Eriya Kategaya spoke on behalf of the Uganda government at the UN Security Council debate in New York in October, he did not show any practical efforts by the government to support such women since the signing of the Resolution.
Like on many other commitments to women, the minister spoke of more promises.
“In the next five years,” he said, “Uganda will be developing a comprehensive national policy on gender-based violence to guide prevention and response efforts in all situations... We shall also establish sustainable and integrated systems of collecting data on gender-based violence and improve access to justice for victims and survivors,” he said.
Yet back home the government continues to ignore the sexual violence the army committed in the different conflict affected areas. Even when a War Crimes Court was finally set up to prosecute crimes committed during the two decades war in northern Uganda, it exempted government soldiers.
For women victims of war time rape like Amuge, such treatment puts them through double injustice as the government has also not provided their medical needs. Many of them face reproductive health consequences like fistula.
Minister Kategaya pointed out that like the 1.5 points for female university entrants, the affirmative action to increase women representation in political organs, Universal Primary education were helping women in conflict affected areas.
He ignored the specific statistics about women in these areas ranging from high dropout rate for girls, high HIV/AIDS prevalence due sexual violence and the general lack of economic empowerment.
Teddy Kiswahili from Kasese War Widows Network says that lack of economic empowerment of women in war affected areas and the increased corruption in electoral process have affected women's participation in politics.
“In politics, Rwenzori women's failure can be attributed to the high cost of elections and the debilitating effects of the culture of corruption. For instance, political campaigns are so highly commercialised that women who in most cases do not have the financial resources to fund their campaigns, find it difficult to take the risks. This to a large extent, coupled with women's low self-esteem and confidence, throws them out of the competition.”
Soroti Woman MP, Alice Alaso told The Independent that there is little knowledge of the resolution.
“There's limited knowledge to people in charge of policies,” she said, “Ordinary women don't even know that their government has accepted this commitment and therefore government is bound to include them in peacebuilding processes.”
Alaso said women have been largely sidelined in post conflict reconstruction.
“We saw it in the Juba peace process where women were mere observers, the PRDP (Peace Recovery and Development Plan) women were never consulted, the Prime Minister's office only hired a gender specialist at implementation stage,” Alaso said.
She suggested that Uganda takes time to review the resolution and put in place a peace policy and a truth and reconciliation commission where women can freely express their concerns.
Uganda may be one of only five African countries that have drawn up an national action plan on the UNSCR 1325 but the 2008 document remains largely on paper.
Gender-based violence in the north has continued even after communities have gone home. The police who are the first point of contact in the criminal justice system in Uganda face huge challenges in areas where people have resettled. Sexual violence victims have to trek miles to access the police and most of the time, the police is largely ill-equipped and ill-skilled to tend victims.
A police commander from northern Uganda who asked not to be name said most of the police in his district was made up of former LRA fighters who were not trained to handle such cases.
“I am working with men who were part of LRA, many took part in these crimes while in the bush, and they were never truly re-integrated. They were offered to police jobs to help track LRA and now these are people you expect to investigate sexual offense. They still have their own trauma,” said the officer.
The victims of sexual violence still have to pay for police transport to investigate and arrest suspects which denies the victims any protection or confidentiality.
Uganda is yet to pass the sexual offenses law which would help enhance prevention and prosecution of these cases.
Domestic violence is on high and the legal system is not present neither is the psycho-social services for the population. In Pader district alone, eight women were killed by their spouses in the first seven months of this year in domestic wrangles.
The question of land has been behind the increased gender based violence among resettling communities.
Nighty Alanyo, a 38 years old widow and a mother of seven, a resident in Pajule sub-county in Pader had all her property, including the land, taken away by her in-laws after her husband's death in 2005. She is not allowed to make any decisions for her family and her wish to re-marry has evoked death threats from her in-laws.
“I don't get any assistance from these in-laws who have taken away most of my family's land and I am not allowed to remarry which could be a way to get a man who can support me and my children,” Alanyo told a Pader –based local organisation, Women Rural Development Network.
Alanyo is just one of the many women across northern Uganda who have been denied land upon return.
The National Action Plan on UNSCR 1325 had indicated that government would avail legal aid for such poor and vulnerable women but nothing is yet on the ground.
Ruth Ochieng, the Isis-Women's International Cross Cultural Exchange Executive Director who organised a peace exposition to commemorate the resolution in Soroti town said women's efforts in peace-building have largely been ignored.
“Women want to see deeds not words, they want to see the reconstruction of their shattered bodies a well as incorporating their work in rebuilding efforts,” said Ochieng. “In my view what we are celebrating is the women's own efforts to implement 1325; for government's contribution, it is not yet Uhuru,” she said.
Like many other countries, women in post conflict Uganda are yet to be fully involved in the recovery plans and their participation remains crippled by economic and social status. Uganda is yet to implement resolution 1325 that many saw as groundbreaking.
As Mary Caprioli and Mark Boyer's 2001 study titled “Gender, Violence, and International Crisis,” indicated, less conflict is a possibility if post-conflict societies commit to gender equality as the base for renewal and rebuilding. For Uganda not to fall back to devastating wars, the needs and concerns of those populations that have suffered in the wars must be addressed.