FAITH leaders marched through Gulu, in northern Uganda, for a “day of prayer” last month to raise awareness of the social stigma affecting the children of the civil war — and their children, born of rape in captivity. It was organised by the children’s charity World Vision, and funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK.
At least 1.5 million people were displaced during the conflict between the Ugandan army and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla group led by Joseph Kony, from 1992 to 2005. Half of those forced into internally displaced persons camps were children.
World Vision is working with churches in northern Uganda to support the estimated 30,000 children who were abducted by LRA during this time, forced into combat, and consequently outcast by their communities on their return home, years later. A third of these children were girls who were given to soldiers as “wives”, and raped, often for the intent of childbearing.
“The day of prayer was the culmination of two years of work and soul-searching in terms of how we can improve the lives of these children,” the senior child-rights policy adviser at World Vision, Erica Hall, said.
At least 2000 children conceived in captivity have been documented by advocacy groups in northern Uganda; but thousands more are likely to remain hidden because of stigmatisation, World Vision has warned.
“These children were born in the bush, in the forest, in the middle of an LRA camp; their daily life was guns, fighter-planes, watching their mothers and other children die, running away, and not having a normal life: not knowing how to play, how to pick up a pencil, not having a family unit,” Ms Hall said. “The idea was that, once a child was born, they became the property of the community: to prevent that bond being made between a mother and their child.”
One woman, Margaret, was 12 years old when she was abducted. She returned home years later with two children, born of rape by both soldiers and medical staff. “My father rejected me and my children,” she said. “I wanted to get married again, but men do not want us with our children. I later got married, but my husband does not like my children. He segregates them, and does not support them in any way. We are stigmatised. My children and I do not feel safe, because in the community we are not loved.”
Those children who escape from South Sudan, the Central African Republic, or the Democratic Republic of Congo — where the LRA is still active — are returning to homes that they have never known, Ms Hall said. “They are seen as outsiders. . . They are not accepted in the community, and struggle to understand why people won’t talk to them, why they can’t go to school, or why no one will give their mother a place to live.”
Michael, an orphan, managed to escape the LRA with the help of a neighbour, who brought him and his younger brother home to northern Uganda two years ago. His grandmother took him in. “He did not know how to play with other children, and the school did not want him for fear he would teach the other children bad things, or be violent,” Ms Hall said.
“World Vision bought a house for him and his brother, in his name, but a man from the community decided he did not belong there, and shot him in the head. He survived, but cannot go to school because he gets headaches, and it took away any confidence he had. He is receiving support, but life is still a struggle for him.”
Many try to hide their identities to protect themselves and their children, but are weighed down by the fear of being found out, she said. “It is a horrific life for them.”
“The beliefs and values of faith leaders inspire the whole community; so in many cases they are inadvertently promoting the stigma without realising what they are doing. It is about . . . talking to their congregations, which creates a dialogue in churches and mosques to change attitudes.”