Rebuilding Lives in Uganda
As part of our “Surviving Violence” series, OpenCanada interviewed Ketty Anyeko. Ketty is the former team leader of the Gender Justice division of the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP), and is currently pursuing a master’s in International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. JRP is an NGO based in Gulu, Uganda, that runs a variety of projects that aim to promote justice and build sustainable peace in communities affected by conflict in Africa’s Great Lakes region. The Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN) is a JRP initiative that seeks to help young women previously abducted by members of the LRA reintegrate into society, and the story of the WAN’s chairperson, Evelyn Amony, is also part of the Surviving Violence series. We talked to Ketty about her experiences working with JRP and the WAN, the challenges facing young women in Uganda who have escaped captivity, and what is being done to help those women move forward and rebuild their lives.
Tell us a little bit about how you got involved with this kind of advocacy work.
I started working with the war-affected communities in 2006 in the Acholi sub-region in northern Uganda. At that time, the Justice and Reconciliation Project was still a partnership project between the Gulu District NGO Forum and the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, but in 2010, it became an independent NGO. We started working with formerly abducted women as part of our research for JRP on marriage, young mothers, and reintegration. Over the course of our research, we realized that the voices of these women were absent from the justice and peace debates in Uganda. We uncovered several challenges that war-affected women, particularly those returning from LRA captivity, were struggling with. Together with Erin Baines, the JRP started to engage these women in storytelling groups after the conclusion of our research. The Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN) grew out of this, as the women involved in the storytelling sessions eventually felt that wider outreach was necessary, and that a way to do that was to form the WAN network.
Once you established that this was a group of women that needed help, and that their needs were not being addressed by any other NGOs operating in the region, how did you go about connecting with these individuals? Were they wary of sharing their stories?
Many of the war-affected persons in northern Uganda seem tired of being asked questions all the time by different researchers, journalists, or students who go to do their research dissertations on the northern Uganda conflict. So that was a challenge initially – the women thought we wanted to just get their stories. Later, they came to realize that was not our intention. I joined one of the storytelling groups of formerly abducted women, and gradually, this helped those women to become more comfortable in sharing their stories.
The first storytelling group we ran had about 25 members, most of whom were formerly abducted by the LRA. Every weekend, we organized storytelling sessions and shared memories of the war under a tree in the compound of a woman who was kind enough to host the group. The women who attended had spent about 10-15 years in LRA captivity after being taken away from their homes when they were as young as 8-12 years old. In the group, we used various exercises to help them tell their stories, like drawing maps and pictures of their experiences – life maps. These maps helped them narrate their experiences from before, during, and after their abduction. Sometimes, they were also able to envision the life that they wanted for the future. It was a voluntary process through which they encouraged and supported each other. I participated and told my personal stories, because I wanted to establish their trust in me – I wanted them to know that we are all human beings with stories to tell. Because we all shared our stories, they realized that I was there to listen and to help them share more stories with each other. I think they needed someone to listen to their stories, and that they found this to be an empowering experience.
Did these women find the storytelling sessions helpful?
They said that storytelling was important because it helped them to remember what they had gone through. They don’t want to forget it, because if they forget it, then in the future, if their children born in LRA captivity ask them, “Mommy, where is my daddy?” they wouldn’t know what to say. They said storytelling had a huge healing effect – to know that someone knows and acknowledges their suffering was very helpful. Later on, we printed personal history books based on the stories they told and gave each woman her own. They said those books would help them share their wartime experiences with their children in the future and serve as a written account of their suffering. Two years into the project, the women told the JRP that they feel more confident to speak about their experiences without any fear or shame.
These sessions must have been quite emotionally intense.
The first few weeks weren’t easy. So many of the women said that they had never told detailed stories about their experiences, not even to their parents. It was during the storytelling sessions that they realized they had common experiences, which helped them, but it was a very tough time. The more they continued talking about this, the more they gained courage to speak – even those who were silent in the beginning ended up telling their stories. Tears were shed each time we met. I must say, these women are so strong – their strength needs to be recognized.
What were the most serious challenges that these young women faced during captivity?
First of all, they were abducted when they were little girls, some as young as nine. So they were very little and could not know how to be a mother or a wife, or even a fighter. They told stories of how they didn’t really know what to do when they menstruated early or became pregnant for the first time. They said that there were sexual codes of conduct adopted by the rebel groups that made this worse. For example, a woman who was in her menstruation period could not mingle with other people in the LRA, or with the fighters, because she was seen as a sign of bad luck. If she mingled with others, she would cause the group to lose the battle or fighters to be killed. So she was kept in her own hut, with her own plates, her own cups for water… This was traumatizing, because most of them were experiencing menstruation for the first time, or becoming pregnant, while completely isolated. Another serious challenge was having to deliver children away from their families and medical facilities.
And they were not ready for childbirth, clearly.
Exactly. Their first sexual experiences in the bush were rape, and even when they were forced to be wives to those commanders, they still suffered repeated forms of sexual violence. Some of them narrated how horrible it was when it happened for the first time – how they were forced. They were told that they had no choice but to be a certain man’s wife. They resisted – they tried all kinds of ways of resisting – but they were threatened with death, some were beaten … all kinds of terrible things were done to them to coerce them to give in. And so they ended up bearing all these children they were not prepared for – children giving birth to children.
And you know that the LRA reportedly did not settle in one place for long. A big challenge for these women was having to be constantly on the move, because some of them were pregnant, had multiple children, and had to move with luggage. So there they were, carrying luggage on their heads, babies on their backs, maybe even pregnant, sometimes even while battles were going on around them.
Some of the challenges that these women face upon their return from the bush relate to the children that they gave birth to when they were living in captivity – to many of them, those children are the source of the biggest challenges they experience after captivity. First of all, they don’t have the means to raise these children. They can’t meet their basic needs like food, shelter, clothing, medical care … Some of the kids also reach the age of secondary-level education and then require higher fees that their mothers can’t afford to pay.
Another big challenge is that these children are stigmatized by their communities. The children of these women are viewed as the children of rapists – of some LRA commander – and are associated with the bad things commanders did. Some of the children are reminded by the community of their LRA fathers through isolation or teasing. And when the children question their mothers about why they are treated this way, their mothers experience even more psychological pain. One woman from one of the groups in Nwoya District recently commented that she doesn’t know if this stigma will ever end. This is a reminder that even when communities claim that no stigma exists, it can remain. That is why one of the key aims of the Women’s Advocacy Network is to fight stigma as part of enabling reconciliation.
Do you think the government in Uganda takes the challenges these women face seriously? Have any other national or local responses been inspired by the work you’ve done?
There were a number of NGOs and rehabilitation centres that provided services to support women when they first returned from captivity. These groups provided them with pycho-social support, and even income-generation activities. But I think, as much as this helped in the short term, many of the women are now back at square one. I’m not really trying to say that all those organizations or government agencies that did those things didn’t do a great job – I mean, they did remarkable work, but I think there was a timing issue, in that too much was done too fast. These women needed prolonged counselling before they could even comprehend being taught a particular skill or learning to run a business.
In Uganda, is the problem then reintegration over the longer term? Has the conflict subsided enough to permit that?
Yes, right now, but peace is still fragile because the LRA remains at large. The biggest challenges facing formerly abducted women now relate to reintegration, particularly economic reintegration, as well as justice and reconciliation. What the government needs to do, or what any organization or entity or individual who would like to help these women should do, is support programs that focus on economic empowerment, because that is the key to making these women better able to protect themselves from all forms of violence. We should not forget, even if our focus is on violence related to the LRA, that these women are vulnerable even after escaping captivity, and that if they are not empowered economically, they often end up in abusive relationships.
One final question. How important do you think an apology from the Ugandan government would be to the reintegration of these women? Would it make a difference?
The issue of an apology is controversial: Who should be required to apologize to whom? And for what? This is not settled. It is also complicated by the fact that some of the LRA commanders who abused and tortured abducted women have already returned under a blanket amnesty and are living in the same communities as some of those women.
Some of the women feel that the government has ignored them since their return. An apology from the government would be a way of acknowledging the suffering that they have endured. Apologies can help speed the recovery process.
But an apology has not been offered. I don’t know when or if it will happen. But I believe it would be an important thing for both sides, to help them recover psychologically, and that it would help with the reconciliation that the WAN continues to work toward.