Women and girls returning to northern Uganda from forced conscription into the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) struggle to resettle in their home communities because of stigma and a severe shortage of reintegration facilities tailored to their needs, say analysts and returnees.
The LRA, which was formed in northern Uganda in 1986 as an armed rebellion against the Ugandan government, is now active in Southern Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. The group is estimated to have between 200 and 400 armed combatants and hundreds of abductees, a third of them under the age of 18. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that more than 25,000 youths have been abducted since 1986.
After leaving the LRA, former female combatants return to their villages with children forcibly fathered by LRA commanders and delivered in the bush. They are often shunned by their families and stigmatized as “bush women” by their communities. Many have had to abandon their homes and head to the outskirts of Gulu, one of the largest cities in northern Uganda, to find alternative means of survival.
A number of female abductees live in Kasubi and Layubi sub-wards of Gulu municipality, 200 to 300 of them in Kasubi alone. Originally gun-carrying combatants, cooks, logisticians, spies, sex partners and porters for the LRA, these women say they are leading desperate lives working as prostitutes or brewing alcohol for a living.
Margarent Akumu*, 25, a mother of four, said she was abducted by rebels at the age of 11 from her home in Amuru in 1997. One of her children was fathered by a senior LRA commander; the others were born after she escaped from the rebels in 2005. When she went back to her village, Akumu said she and her children faced hostility from community members, forcing her to leave her ancestral home. “I am living here in Kasubi where I brew alcohol to raise money for food, rent and to treat the children if they fall sick. I have nowhere I can turn for help. I made a mistake, I wouldn't have escaped from the rebels if I had known this would be my life here. Life is difficult here, like in the bush.”
Another former combatant, Rose Aber, 27, was abducted by the LRA at 10 from her village in Koro and experienced similar stigma when she returned. “I left home in 2003. People were never comfortable living with me, I felt it in the way they talked and treated my child,” she said. “My uncle one day sat me down and told me to my face, ‘I can't take care of you, you know why, you have been a rebel in the LRA and we fear you'.”
To survive and pay the monthly rent for a grass-thatched mud hut of about 7,000 to 8,000 Ugandan shillings (US$2.90-3.35) a month, the women take on casual jobs, including washing clothes, weeding neglected land, fetching water and selling local spirits. These jobs earn them only 72,000 Ugandan shillings a month, the equivalent of about $1 a day. The jobs are inconsistent and the money is not enough to meet their needs, prompting them to supplement their earnings through commercial sex work.
An October 2010 study on land and re-integration in northern Uganda undertaken by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) claimed there were few, if any, re-integration programmes in the Acholi sub-region for vulnerable ex-combatants and young people.
According to the study, "Northern Uganda is known as having one of the world's most volatile and spontaneous processes of re-integration. More than 32,000 former LRA combatants defected, escaped, were captured," or simply reintegrated into Acholi civil society of their own accord. Almost none was helped to reintegrate socially and economically into their communities.
Female ex-combatants were found to be particularly marginalized in relation to land access. The report said 87 percent of the women living in Kasubi were unable to access land. Khristopher Carlson, senior researcher at Tufts University and one of the authors of a 2007 report on war-affected youth in Uganda, said abducted females often returned to their homes only to find that family land had been re-allocated to non-relatives and children born in captivity had no claim to land access or inheritance. The problem is compounded by gender-biased customary law whereby women can utilize the land of their families or husbands, but are not allowed to own land themselves.
Existing reintegration programmes for ex-combatants fail to provide care, livelihood support and access to education, according to a 2010 study by Gulu Support the Children Organization. The study found there was a need to eliminate discrimination against returnees and ex-combatants.
Former female abductees said the reintegration support provided by rehabilitation centres included blankets, mattresses, cups, plates, basins and seeds. Some were offered skills training in catering and tailoring by Amnesty International, but said the support had not yielded tangible results in uplifting their lives.
“Are these plates, blankets and cups resettlement?” asked Margaret Akello, an LRA abductee living in Kasubi. “These are obvious items one can get, but we expected to be supported with meaningful training and some income to help us start businesses or do something where we can earn money.”
Donor-supported agencies claim that providing livelihood support is not easy. “Yes, our activity is only emergency. We counsel these children upon their return and later give them resettlement packages to go home,” said a rehabilitation officer at one of the Gulu centres, who requested anonymity. “We provide skills training but the problem is that the market for the skills has suffocated. Almost every skills training here is tailoring, carpentry, and building. Thousands of youth have undergone such training in northern Uganda; there is a need to do something more than the usual training with no impact.”
For the majority, medical care and conflict mediation were found to be more important than economic support, according to the 2007 study. Carlson said no government initiatives existed to address reproductive health problems resulting from sexual violence and incidents of physical trauma that occur during captivity.
The survey also called for a special fund for women and girls and a focus on accelerating education and secondary support programmes. Access to higher education remains virtually impossible for former abductees.
“Many girls were kept within the LRA after their initial abduction because they were intelligent, educated girls,” said Carlson. “Top leadership often chose these girls specifically to be their forced wives so they could serve as intelligence officers, interpreters, radio operators and so on. But for these girls, years of captivity, compounded by poverty, have put an end to their hopes for furthering their education, especially those with children.”
This remained the case despite President Yoweri Museveni's claim to bring education to all children in Uganda through the government's universal primary education programme. “And yet, education doesn't seem to be out of reach for former high-ranking commanders from the LRA responsible for organizing abductions and ... grave human rights abuses,” he said. “One former commander is enrolled at a university in the north studying, of all things, Peace Studies. It's ridiculous.”
The Ugandan government has signed an Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation with the LRA calling for reparations to victims of the conflict but, Carlson says, “it has not make the slightest move to indicate that it's interested in fulfilling this promise”.
*Not her real name