The Trauma of Child Soldiers
What happens to a child after having been abused as a soldier?
Most girls in Northern Uganda have gone through hell: During a brutal civil war, they were abused as child soldiers, and faced sexual exploitation and deprivations. Today they are lost. We are trying to help.
After two decades of a civil war that lasted from 1986 to 2008, warlord Joseph Koney's infamous Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has finally withdrawn from Northern Uganda. But while the region may have disappeared from screens and newspaper headlines, the people there are still struggling with the aftermath of the war. The level of poverty is very high compared to other districts in Uganda. 60% of the population of Northern Uganda lives on less than a dollar per day. Children, youths and underprivileged women are most affected by extreme poverty. Many of them are formerly abducted children who returned home with own children, survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS victims and people with disabilities.
According to reports from the United Nations, about 65,000 children and teens were abducted by armed forces during the years of the civil war. 1.8 million people were displaced and sought protection in refugee camps. With the return of peace, people have returned to their original homes, but not everyone was accepted back into their communities. And as the refugees and former fighters return home, new violent conflicts have emerged that are due to land distribution struggles. It is estimated that about five people die every day as a result of violent land disputes. Furthermore, domestic violence is also a huge problem.
About 65,000 children and teens were abducted by armed forces during the years of the civil war.
It is a sad truth that all abducted children have been exposed to the most atrocious forms of violence, no matter whether they were forced to fight alongside the rebels or used for other purposes. The girls were continuously subjected to sexual violence. Returning home with small children, a huge number of the girls have been rejected by their families and communities out of shame. Today, these girls and young women with their children are most vulnerable to poverty and further injustice. Former male child soldiers also face rejection and the unwillingness of their communities to reintegrate them.
A majority of young people – especially girls – had no chance of getting a formal education during the war. Many of them have now resorted to casual labour that is not enough to sustain them. More than half of the many children dropping out of school are girls. Higher education is very costly, and it is not even a guarantee for employment. There is a high level of unemployment, and crime among young people in the region is on the rise.
There is a high level of unemployment, and crime among young people is on the rise.
Furthermore, while the region is very fertile, land utilization to increase production for both consumption and income generation is difficult because people lack modern technologies and use rudimentary tools for agriculture.
Another problem is nodding disease, which has become epidemic in the region. This disease primarily affects children and causes epileptic convulsions, a loss of appetite and mental retardation. In one household, at least three, and sometimes even all five children are likely to be affected. This has also had an impact on agricultural activities, since parents have to take care of their sick children at home. Research teams from the Ministry of Health have taken samples for testing to investigate the cause of this strange disease, but so far no clear cause has been identified.
Neither government programmes nor most of the major non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are very effective in helping young people to become self-reliant. There are many international development and aid organizations operating in the most affected areas, Northern Uganda's Lamwo and Kitgum districts. Lamwo being border to Sudan used to be one of the LRA's hiding places. Kitgum town offers certain amenities and more safety at night; so many highly desperate young people came to the town hoping to be able to survive. The majority has ended up settling in destitute slum areas in town.
Approximately, 88 aid organizations including NGO and CBOs are registered in both Lamwo and Kitgum but only 47 are currently active - most of the others have left the area. However, those that are still in existence follow top-down approach, overlooking the real needs of the population and making locals feel passive and excluded from the decision-making process. They are thus slowing down the prospect of sustainable development for the region.
After coming back from Germany in 2007, I started the Foundation for Women Affected by Conflicts (FOWAC) with some like-minded young women. We were officially registered in Kitgum and Lamwo in 2008 and received great support from medica mondiale, a German NGO that support traumatized women and girls.
FOWAC is a woman-led, non-political, non-profit making organization. Our work is mainly focused on child mothers and their children. We work together to empower these young women with difficult backgrounds and an often very violent past to alleviate their plight and improve the quality of life especially in Northern Uganda. FOWAC also works with grassroots communities and local government structures to reach out to these young women and girls, especially those who had to go through the hell of combat and sexual exploitation.
The main kinds of support FOWAC offers the women and girls include psychosocial support, training in agriculture, training in income-generating activities, provision of farm implements and micro-credits. This way, we want the women to become self-reliant, hopeful and regain dignity in the eyes of the community. From 2007 to today, 569 war-affected women, girls and youths have directly benefited from FOWAC programs. Furthermore, there are thousands of indirect beneficiaries whose livelihoods and psychosocial welfare have improved due to the support. Their lives have greatly changed. FOWAC is committed to connecting with more communities, beneficiaries, stakeholders and like-minded people around the world to alleviate the plight of the most marginalized and neglected lot in society.