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Uganda: a lesson in courage given by women

27-02-2007 Feature

In northern Uganda, almost 1.5 million people, most of whom are Acholis, have had to abandon their villages and their fields and seek refuge in camps for internally displaced persons. Some of them have been living in these camps for ten years. They have tried to recreate a community there. But it has been difficult.

The Acholis have built new lives for themselves and a new form of society. Yet living in an alien overcrowded environment means that displaced persons lose their bearings and the traditions which used to cement the community crumble

Women are bearing the brunt of this decomposition of the social fabric. Although their access to land is limited, they still have to feed their family – often without the support of their menfolk, who have given up hunting or working in the fields. For many men, who are now disoriented, destitute and without work, the forfeiting of their traditional role as the economic mainstay of the family and their loss of standing has disastrous effects. The swapping of roles, alcohol abuse and the destruction of family and community customs are leading to an increase in violence to which women and children are often exposed. Some people even say that domestic violence is " inherent in life in the camps " .

Nevertheless, for some women, like Joy, Peace and Mary, these changes and life in the camps offer an opportunity to learn new skills, or to take on new roles and responsibilities.

Joy, a traditional midwife 

  © ICRC    
  Traditional midwives from a camp in Gulu in training with an ICRC midwife.

Joy, aged 38, is a midwife. She learnt her walk of life from her mother who had learnt it from her own mother. Even when she was a little girl, she accompanied them on their daily rounds. That is how she gained experience, first by watching, then by helping. The skill of a traditional midwife is handed down from one generation to the next. It draws not on science, but on women's memory which must be passed on if it is not to be lost. 

There are seven midwives in the camp at Omot, which contains about 4,000 displaced persons. Women turn to them with all kinds of difficulties regarding their sexuality, domestic violence, pregnancy or their children's upbringing. In a way, they are confidantes who are the repositories of secrets and sorrows.

Violence is on the rise and many women and girls are even more vulnerable than they were in the past, as Joy explains. " It is ironic but, when all is said and done, the war has been beneficial for us traditional midwives. Some humanitar ian organizations working in northern Uganda, like the ICRC, are teaching us new methods. We can react better when complications occur during pregnancy or labour. "

An ICRC midwife regularly works alongside the traditional midwives in six of the camps in the Pader district. She teaches them how to conduct an antenatal examination, provides them with medical equipment and supplies for delivery and shows them how to detect complications which can prove fatal at birth. The traditional midwives now automatically refer women in need of specialist care to the appropriate hospitals. Even if they have been practising their calling for many years, it is the first time that they have received any vocational training. " It's like going to the school I dreamed about when I was little, " says Joy happily.

 Peace, the spokeswoman for her sisters  


Peace is the representative of the women from another camp situated at Adilang, which is a little further to the north. The camp is organized and divided into blocks numbered from 1 to 10. Each block is represented by a man called a " head of block " and the camp is represented by a head of the camp, his deputy and his secretaries. The women in each camp are represented by a small group of women consisting of the main representative and her deputies who normally come from different blocks.

All the same, it is not easy to find Peace among all these identical, serried huts. But everyone knows everyone else, especially the representatives. Sometimes it is enough to ask a child the way and he or she will guide you through the maze of huts. Peace is an older woman. The ICRC often meets her in order to find about living conditions, security or relations between the camp-dwellers and the soldiers in the vicinity. She describes life in the camp while nursing the latest addition to her family or sorting through seeds.

" I have the right and the duty to speak, to describe the living conditions of the women and children in the camps. "

Often on seeing her, other women squat and listen. Sometimes they agree timidly, at others they launch into long diatribes. For Peace, who has known only life working in the fields and then, for the last 20 years, war, this role has given her a degree of unexpected fame. " It's true that women are not normally the chief. Now I take part in meetings with humanitarian organizations and representatives of the local authorities. I have the right and the duty to speak, to describe the living conditions of the women and children in the camps. I talk about our fears, but also about our hopes of returning to our homes, villages, land and families. "  

She is learning to speak in public and is gradually remembering the English she was taught at school. Now she has access to the political and humanitarian information which concerns them all. " That's the upside, " she concludes " My life has become poorer because of this war that has been going on for far too long, but it has also become richer. "

 Mary, the fifteen year-old former hostage of the Lord's Resistance Army   

Mary is 15 years old. Not long ago she was the hostage of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) which kidnapped many children during the conflict. She is the mother of two children born in captivity of two different fathers, who were LRA fighters. The ICRC is meeting her to bring her a Red Cross message from one of the fathers who has been captur ed by the regular Ugandan army. She reads it delightedly, even if her father, who is standing behind her, does not look as if he appreciates this letter from a man he does not know, who is not a member of the clan and who has ruined his daughter. 

Mary tells us something of her previous life and her sufferings, how she managed to escape with her two small children and was then reunited with her family thanks to the mediation of humanitarian agencies. It was wonderful to be back home and she was overjoyed to see her parents again after so many years of wandering from one corner of the district to the other and of hiding. Yet she also says that it is not easy to be like the other women in the camp.

She is constantly reminded of her past by her children, who are not the sons of her family but of men unknown to the clan, of men who kidnapped and killed. The integration of her children is proving difficult. Every day, Mary struggles to support them. But her universe has been expanding recently. After five years of roaming the bush and the great expanses of northern Uganda, she is at last learning to do something other than make war. Together with other former women soldiers from the LRA she produced and took part in a play designed to increase the population's acceptance of them by creating an awareness of their story.

Today the Red Cross message brings her a glimmer of hope. The man she loved has written to tell her that he has also freed himself from his past. Even though he is now a member of the regular Ugandan army, she hopes that, through the peace talks, one day she and her children will be able to join him and that they will all be able to live together as a family.