Fahamu (Oxford)

Uganda: Lord's Resistance Army Politicizing Sexual Violence

analysis

Photo: Voxcom/IRIN
LRA fighters in Rikwangba, Sudan (file photo).

Sexual and gender based violence in Uganda fails to be adequately addressed by the Ugandan government that fails to consult with women on this issue. It seems sexual and physical attacks on women are new 'weapons to discipline women' in to submission

Women in war-scarred regions who fall victim to either sexual or gender-based violence, face double tragedy: On the one hand there is thin police presence especially in rural communities with some officers named as perpetrators. On the other, corruption within the judiciary makes justice a mirage for victims.

Youth Minister Ronald Kibuule added fuel to the fire by declaring that indecently-dressed girls who get raped have themselves to blame, and exhorted police to prosecute such victims instead!

MINISTER BLAMES GIRLS FOR RAPE AMIDST DAILY SEXUAL ABUSES

The minister's unprovoked ghastly remarks, made to a group of adolescents at an October 2013 workshop, rattled the nation and riled activities but pales compared to tales of daily sexual abuses occurring in northern Uganda, brutalised by Joseph Kony-led Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) two-decade insurgency.

When the guns fell silent in 2005, survivors expected a speedy return not just to a normal life but also prosperity. But they are yet to experience a life without violence.

In reality, the government has no practical way to deal with the problem and its failure to implement a Domestic Violence legislation passed in 2010 has allowed the East African country drift wayward.

"This is like a lion; if a lion invades a village, everyone comes out to make an alarm", said Mary Karooro Okurut, the minister of Gender under which issues of women emancipation, child protection and community development fall. "This (problem) cannot be fought by the government alone."

The Uganda government, the police and NGOs, including United Nations Population Fund, report that 7, 690 girls were defiled, 520 women raped and another 251 murdered during reported episodes of domestic violence in 2011 alone. It's not clear how many perpetrators were tried, and no count of cases unreported to authorities.

Almost 20 per cent of Ugandan women last year reported that their first sexual encounter was against their will, according to the report. Strangely, women activists made no noise when a minister tried to justified rape.

SILENCE - LOUDER THAN WORDS

The silence is even louder in the 16 districts in northern and north-eastern Uganda which were either at the epicentre of or equally suffered immensely from the 1987-2005 LRA war.

The Government blue-print, titled Peace, Recovery and Development Plan or PRDP, marketed by officials as a magic wand to spur development and consolidate peace largely ignores the specific needs and priorities of the Women.

The brutal wars in the region pitted LRA rebels against government soldiers and it saw thousands of women face abuse - rape, sexual slavery, physical assault and forced marriages. Many were also physically disfigured through the cutting of their lips or ears.

As a result of these violations, many victims developed reproductive health complications that have significantly impinged their ability to resettle into a productive life after the war.

Formerly abducted women who have returned home continue to face sexual abuse, for instance, the case of Rose*. She was abducted when barely a teenager, she spent close to 10 years in captivity but escaped together with her 'husband' - one of the rebel commanders she was forcefully given to and he is still holding onto her years after captivity.

Since 2010, Rose has endured sexual abuse from the man who first raped her eight (8) years ago. The supposed husband has punched out five of her upper front teeth; her body is scarred from the man's constant beatings.

"He even rapes her in the presences of her children," said Ms Jolly Okot, co-founder of Invisible Children, a local NGO, which as well is encouraging Rose to separate from her captor.

The victim, who has no skills or means of alternative livelihood worries that she would be worse off if she abandoned her tormentor.

Economic recovery in sixteen districts in the sub-region, which bore the biggest brunt of LRA war, has further been slowed by a social epidemic of child-headed families and single mothers.

During the war, most girls had to trek several kilometers every night from Internally Displaced People's (IDP) camps to avoid being abducted.

LRA INCEPTION

Ms Okot's Invisible Children currently trains 1,000 girls in various life skills at the organisation's centre in Gulu district, her zeal having been inspired by her own agony of abduction and repeated rape.

Now 45 years old, she was first raped at the age of 13 by a commander of the defunct Holy Spirit Movement, a rebel group then led by Alice Auma Lakwena who claimed to possess mystical powers that could melt bullets.

President Yoweri Museveni's new government defeated Lakwena's rapidly advancing forces, and her cousin Joseph Kony, a primary school drop-out and former Altar Boy, re-organised the insurgents into what became the LRA rebellion.

In the bush, Ms Okot was handed over without her consent to a commander as a reward for his fighting prowess."I faced it from both the rebels and the NRA (the Ugandan military, renamed in 2005 as the UPDF). After escaping from the LRA, the NRA came to the village and raped us - me and my sister; we were raped by the NRA and the rebels," said Ms Okot.

She added: "In such a situation you have no one to turn to; there is no law, no one to defend you. You get rape, you walk, and you are bleeding, and the only help is by the mercy of God."Each day in captivity, according to Ms Okot, a commander could snap up a woman and sleep with her overnight after an exhausting day-time engagement either on the farm or battlefield.

She may have grown up with LRA leader Joseph Kony in the same Odeke village, but she says the rebels used sex as a weapon of war.

Sex was not only used as a weapon of war, but also a way of punishment. "Whenever they took us to the garden and we failed to dig, said Ms Okot, "the supervisor would say: I will have sex with you tonight to teach you a lesson."

Godfrey Ayoo, Spokesperson of the LRA, and Uganda army Spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda both deny that either armed side involved in systematic rape of women.

"As far as my understanding of the scientific definition of sex or rape as weapon of war [is concerned], I have not seen any documented evidence nor verbal confirmation of the existence of a policy by LRA to use sex, and or, rape as a weapon of war against women and children," Mr Ayoo said.

He instead blamed the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers over the reported sexual assaults, an allegation Lt. Col. Ankunda confuted, pointing an accusing finger back at the rebels.

"If there were such cases [masterminded by the Ugandan military], I am sure they were handled," the Colonel said, "I cannot recall any deliberate incident of rape. We would not have condoned impunity when we needed people's support."

POINTING FINGERS

The cross finger-pointing by Ankunda and Ayoo confirms sexual abuse occurred, according to victims on a violent and mass scale, but no one now wants to take responsibility. Alice Achiro, 39, who returned home from captivity at the rank of a captain and was the Women's Commander in the bush, like Ms Okot, speaks of unbearable sexual violations.

"The rebel leaders would apply a white power substance mixed with water or shear butter oil to the bust of a captured girl. If it stuck to the body when dry, it would be assumed the girl was HIV-free and she would be given to a particular commander and used as a sex slave every night," she narrated.

Now living with three children fathered by rebel commanders, including Tolbert Yadin Nyeko, then LRA's army commander, Ms Achiro says her first sexual encounter with the top rebel commander lingers on her mind. She, however, declined to share what she describes as "its painful details."

It seems fate remained unkind to her. Years after escaping from the bush, Ms Achiro married a man who turned out a violent drug addict. He battered her for pleasure, she says.When she snapped up for the husband, he became dodgy and eventually lifted everything in the house and vanished.

To Mr Ayoo, the women were conscripted much as fighters and baggage carriers than sex slaves and "I don't know if that meant being used as a weapon of war".

"If Kony captured them, it was for some other reasons; to serve as soldiers and at the end of day also use them for other interests."

On the continuous sexual abuse of the female returnees, Mr Ayena said "they have been left with the devil's choice." The dilemmas the victims are facing would force them to stay, he noted, but their inability to fend for themselves keeps them stuck to abusive men.

Ironically, some returnees who in the bush were Kony's 'wives', speak highly of him as a loving and caring man in many ways than men they found upon return home. Not even the providence by close family members rivalled the upkeep extended by Kony, a global face of terror.

Martin Ojul was the leader of the LRA delegation at the failed Juba peace talks, and admits there was systematic rape of women by the fighters during the war but it was aimed at humiliating the Acholi people for hobnobbing with Yoweri Museveni's government they were fighting.

"In every war, those are the common things that happen. It (sexual violence) happened, it was done by the LRA fighters but was not used as a weapon of war but an abuse of women," Mr Ojul argued.

OTHERS DISAGREE

Sexual abuse and physical assault are men's new "weapons to 'discipline' women", said Judith Pamela Angwech, the executive director of Gulu Women's Economic Development and Globalisation. "People learned abusive ways from the war; rebels and government soldiers raped women, and men who have become frustrated, do it as a way of life," she said.

At the height of the LRA insurgency, the government forced affected communities into congested Internally Displaced People's (IDP) camps where an estimated 1.7 million people lived in squalor, on hand-outs and without privacy. The rebels often attacked the camps, raping women and killing in the open, and people's traditions were broken.

The camp life meant generations of young men and women neither knew nor practiced cultural decorum. They have grown into adults on their own land, but alien to their own ways of life.It speaks to a society turned on its head by war.

- Tabu Butagira and Barbara Among

* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM

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