Gender, Violence, and Peacebuilding in Northern Uganda

 

By
Emily Manaen

March 2011

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Gender: A Difficult Topic

Women in northern Uganda have led complex, beautiful and at times, challenging lives.  For many women in northern Uganda, violence and injustice have become a regular part of life.  Between the brutal, multi-decade guerrilla war led by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) —where women were raped and young girls abducted as sex slaves—and the ensuing forced relocation into internally displaced peoples’ (IDP) camps led by the Ugandan government— where women continue to face gender-based violence— the bodies and souls of women in northern Uganda have taken obscene amounts of abuse. They cry out for an end to the violence and their right to justice.  

It is important that the reader keep in mind that women in northern Uganda are much more than victims.  Yet the harsh reality is that women have suffered immensely during the war and post-conflict reconstruction in Uganda.  Writing as a woman from the Northern Hemisphere, I am cautious to present my own gender values and assumption upon women in Uganda.  I cannot pretend to understand the gender complexities facing those living in Uganda, but I can record how women in Uganda describe their experience.  Life in the camps is difficult and very much about survival.  Women and girls living in IDP camps in Uganda fear the daily task of fetching water because they risk sexual assault along the way. [1] It is clear that the camps are perilous places.  Peacebuilders at the international, national and local levels have failed to protect the most vulnerable and to consider the complex gender dynamics present in these contexts. [2]

The fields of gender studies and peacebuilding have yet to come to an adequate meeting point.  Peace studies too often places women into problematic categories of either “victims” or “agents of change,” unintentionally promoting essentialist paradigms which perpetuate the power dynamics that marginalize women in the first place.  The scope of this article does not allow for an in-depth discussion on these gendered realities, but my argument here is that in order to promote sustainable peace we must do just that- consider the gendered realities of conflict and post-conflict reconstruction.  It is the peacebuilder’s responsibility to understand the gendered complexity of violence and subsequently enact legislation and programming that encompasses the broader identity and experience of women—not just that of a victim.

Without falling into the “women as victims” paradigm, this article will detail the complex issue of gender-based violence within IDP camps in northern Uganda while also suggesting ways in which peacebuilding efforts could better promote a sustainable peace.  This article uses IDP camps in Uganda as a case study to highlight the greater world-wide problem of violence against women and to consider the best ways to diminish this trend.

Gender- Based Violence Definitions

Although vastly underreported, violence against women is thought to be “one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world.” [3]   According to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the term gender-based violence

distinguishes violence that targets individuals or groups of individuals on the basis of their gender from other forms of violence. It includes any act which results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm. Gender-based violence includes violent acts such as rape, torture, mutilation, sexual slavery, forced impregnation and murder. It also defines threats of these acts as a form of violence. [4]

Covering community, family, and state violence, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) provides a more comprehensive framework on violence against women.

Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life. [5]  

Gender-Based Violence and IDP Camps in Northern Uganda

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has tormented the people of northern Uganda with extreme violence for over two decades.  In 2002, the Ugandan government forced almost the entire population of northern Uganda into internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps. [6] Although the promising 2006 peace talks between the LRA and Ugandan government all but deteriorated by 2008, the LRA is currently less active in northern Uganda.  With the recent decrease in violence, up to 92 percent of the original 1.8 million displaced persons in northern Uganda have returned home. [7] As of December 2010, an estimated 166,000 people (many of whom are considered “extremely vulnerable individuals”) remained in transitional IDP camps. [8]
 
In Uganda, violence against women is a widespread problem that is strongly exacerbated in IDP camps in the North.  Initially developed to “protect” the people of northern Uganda against the LRA, the IDP camps themselves have proved to be very violent places. For some women and young girls in northern Uganda, relocating to IDP camps in 2002 came with a reassurance of increased security from violent abductions and sexual slavery by the LRA. [9] But the unfortunate reality for many women in northern Uganda is that IDP camps afford no greater security from gender-based violence, and in fact, women face a significant risk of gender-based violence in these settings. [10]  

The rates of gender-based violence in IDP camps within Uganda are alarming.  One study found that 1 in every 2 women experienced some form of gender-based violence during their reporting year. [11] Greater than 4 of 10 women reported domestic violence.  Three of 10 reported to experience forced sex with intimate partners. One of 20 was raped by someone outside their household. Although violence against women is also a problem outside of the camps, these statistics are significantly higher than those indicated through routine recording. [12]

Many scholars are attempting to understand why women are facing increased vulnerability to gender-based violence within the camps.  Within the camp setting, traditional societal practices and norms are disrupted and often cause a shift of power dynamics which can lead to increasing levels of violence. [13]   In other words, the conflict and mass relocation in northern Uganda has both reinforced cultural and social norms that perpetuate violence against women, and disrupted traditional mechanisms which prevent large amounts of gender-based violence in village life. [14] This dual reinforcement and breakdown of various norms has significantly contributed to the prevalence of gender-based violence in IDP camps. 

Many camps house between 1,000 to 50,000 displaced persons, and thus overcrowding and inadequate access to clean water, food, shelter and health care services are significant problems within the camps.[15] These problems further exacerbate the prevalence of gender-based violence in northern Uganda.
Although acknowledged as a significant problem, gender-based violence is largely underreported in Ugandan IDP camps and around the world. [16]   Survivors of gender-based violence often face significant community stigma which prevents them from reporting their experiences.  Furthermore, Uganda’s culture of impunity and corrupted police and legal systems avert real justice for women who do choose to report their abuse. [17]

National Response

The Ugandan Constitution puts forth a progressive gender agenda in that, “women shall be accorded full and equal dignity of the person with men” Article 33 (1). [18] It also prohibits cultures, traditions or customs  that deny the “dignity, welfare or interest of women or which undermine their status.” Article 33(6) Furthermore, it declares the role of the state is to “provide the facilities and opportunities necessary to enhance the welfare of the women to enable them to realize their full potential and advancement.” Article 33(2) [19]

The Ugandan government has taken steps to address gender-based violence by promoting legislation on domestic violence, marriage and divorce, and sex offences and trafficking in persons, but these proposals have yet to be passed into law. [20]

The primary national government policies concerning gender-based violence include: National Gender Policy; the National Gender Action Plan; The Social Development Plan; the National Equal Opportunities Policy and Action Plan; and the National HIV/AIDS Strategic Plan. The goals of these policies are gender equity and justice, women’s empowerment and the elimination of discrimination. [21] There are also numerous community level interventions and education targeting women’s rights and empowerment.

In sum, Ugandan law states that the eradication of gender-based violence is both a priority and a value. 

International Response

The international community’s response to gender-based violence was initially slow, but since the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, violence against women has become a central human rights issue.  Recently a plethora of documents, treaties, policies, resolutions, and laws have demonstrated international support for women’s rights and against sexual violence. [22]

United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 was the first Security Council resolution to focus on women’s experience of armed conflict. Subsequent Security Council resolutions 1820 and 1888 focus specifically on sexual violence in armed conflict and “reaffirm the importance of ending impunity for all forms of violence against women and girls,” especially sexual violence during armed conflict. [23]  In other words, Uganda is bound by international law to not only protect and uphold the rights of women, but to prioritize the eradication of gender-based violence. [24]

Strong Laws, Lack of Justice

The prevailing question is: why are the combined domestic and international efforts not resulting in fewer cases of gender-based violence and greater justice for the victims? Even with these advances, the situation for women in  warring and post-conflict regions, made clear through this case study of IDP camps in northern Uganda, is not improving.  One could argue that Uganda is failing in its international obligation to “prevent violations of the right to physical and mental integrity, and women’s equality before the law.” [25]

Although very important, gender advances in international and domestic law do not readily equate to practical advances for women.  The reasons for this weak connection include some obvious points: police prioritize reconciliation over criminal justice; there is little protection for women who do seek justice, and few medical examiners to assess and treat victims.  But there are also the more nuanced gender realities for women who want justice but believe they are socially, politically, and legally inferior to their male perpetrators, and thus unable to obtain real justice. [26]  

One of the greatest obstacles towards justice for gender-based survivors is in fact their silence.   Many women believe, often through past experience, that their voices will not be heard if they do  report their experiences of gender-based violence.  Thus very few instances of gender-based violence are actually reported to the authorities. Strong laws are a necessary condition for justice but a culture of gender equality and commitment to the ending of discrimination in law and in practice is necessary for the laws to be effective.[27]

Conclusion and Lessons Learned

Gender-based violence is an ongoing problem in Uganda, inhibiting both peace and development.  If sustainable peace is to be achieved, this problem must be successfully addressed. [28]  However, there are no easy solutions to the problem of gender-based violence.  The Uganda government and peacebuilding community as a whole have a responsibility to protect both women and men from gender-based violence and to guarantee equal access to justice.   Many conscientious efforts have been made to do so, but these labors have proved insufficient.  Although progressive laws are essential, until gender equity becomes a normative value, gender-based discrimination and impunity for perpetrators will prevail. 

“A more nuanced understanding of the context of violence is critical to appropriate long-term responses that enable individuals and communities to heal when peace is secured.” [29] To ensure sustainable peace, peacebuilders must utilize a deeper analysis of gender before, during, and after conflict.  It is important to analyze the root causes of conflict and the deeply rooted gender perceptions which perpetuate both structural and physical violence. [30] Even as the internally displaced persons in northern Uganda return home, the problems outlined in this paper will persist until the structural issues of gender-based violence are dealt with. 

Although increasing accountability for perpetrators is essential for preventing gender based violence, interventions at all levels of society are necessary to decrease this trend.  Gender needs to be incorporated into peacebuilding activities as an analytical tool through which conflict is viewed and peacebuilding strategies developed.  Peacebuilders must continue to pursue gender equity, endorse strong sanctions against interpersonal violence, and maintain existing community support for victims. [31] They must also develop a deeper understanding of the structural elements of gender discrimination from the systemic to normative levels of society. 

A final word

Women in northern Uganda and around the world are much more than victims and should not be reduced to such through our unintentional peacebuilding strategies.  That said, these same women continue to experience regular violence that hinders their ability to move forward as individuals and as societies. Our work as peacebuilders must be to adopt a gender lens through which to analyze complex power dynamics and thus promote a more sustainable peace for those with whom we work.


[1]   Horn, Rebecca. “Coping With Displacement: Problems and Responses in Camps for the Internally Displace in Kitgum, Northern Uganda,” Intervention: International Journal of Mental Health, Psychosocial Work & Counseling in Areas of Armed Conflict. 7(2009):110-129.
 
[2]   Ibid.
 
[3]    Stark, Lindsay; L. Roberts, W. Wheaton, A. Acham, N. Boothby. “Measuring Violence Against Women Amidst War and Displacement in Northern Uganda Using the ‘Neighborhood Method,’” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 63(2010): 1056-1061.
 
[4]   Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/text/econvention.htm (Accessed March 2011)
 
[5]   General Assembly resolution 48/104 of 20 December 1993, UN Doc A/RES/48/104 of 23. February 1994. http://www.unhchr.ch/huridocda/huridoca.nsf/(symbol)/a.res.48.104.en (Accessed March 2011)
 
[6]   Annan, Jeanie and M. Brier. “The Risk of Return: Intimate Partner Violence in Northern Uganda’s Armed Conflict,” Social Science and Medicine. 70(2010):152-159.
 
[7]    Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Uganda: Difficulties Continue for Returnees and Remaining IDPs as Development Phase Begins. Norwegian Refugee Council. (2010) http://www.internal displacement.org/8025708F004BE3B1/(httpInfoFiles)/D2936C8F45CFFCDBC12578070054C521/$file/Uganda_Overview_Dec2010.pdf (Accessed February 2011).
 
[8]   Ibid.
 
[9]    Horn, Rebecca. “Coping With Displacement: Problems and Responses in Camps for the Internally Displace in Kitgum, Northern Uganda,” Intervention: International Journal of Mental Health, Psychosocial Work & Counseling in Areas of Armed Conflict. 7(2009):110-129.
 
[10]Orach, Christopher Garimoi. “Perceptions of Human Rights, Sexual and Reproductive Health Services in Internally Displace Persons in Northern Uganda,” African Health Services. 9(2009): 72-80.
 
[11]Stark, Lindsay; L. Roberts, W. Wheaton, A. Acham, N. Boothby. “Measuring Violence Against Women Amidst War and Displacement in Northern Uganda Using the ‘Neighborhood Method,’” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 63(2010): 1056-1061.
 
[12]Ibid.
 
[13]Amnesty International. ’I Can’t Afford Justice’: Violence Against Women in Uganda Continues Unchecked and Unpunished. Amnesty International Publications. (2010). http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AFR59/001/2010/en/f3688aa0-b771-464b-aa88-850bcbf5a152/afr590012010en.pdf  (Accessed February 2011)
 
[14]Horn, Rebecca. “Coping With Displacement: Problems and Responses in Camps for the Internally Displace in Kitgum, Northern Uganda,” Intervention: International Journal of Mental Health, Psychosocial Work & Counseling in Areas of Armed Conflict. 7(2009):110-129.
 
[15]Orach, Christopher Garimoi. “Perceptions of Human Rights, Sexual and Reproductive Health Services in Internally Displace Persons in Northern Uganda,” African Health Services. 9(2009): 72-80. and Stark, Lindsay; L. Roberts, W. Wheaton, A. Acham, N. Boothby. “Measuring Violence Against Women Amidst War and Displacement in Northern Uganda Using the ‘Neighborhood Method,’” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 63(2010): 1056-1061.
 
[16]Henttonen, Mirkka, C. Watts, B. Roberts, F. Kaducu, M Borchert. “Health Services for Survivors of Gender-Based Violence in Northern Uganda: A Qualitative Study,” Reproductive Health Matters. 16(2008):122-131.
 
[17]Amnesty International. ’I Can’t Afford Justice’: Violence Against Women in Uganda Continues Unchecked and Unpunished. Amnesty International Publications. (2010): 37.
 
[18]Ibid., 15.
 
[19]Ibid.
 
[20]Ibid., 17,18.
 
[21]Ibid.
 
[22]Amnesty International. ’I Can’t Afford Justice’: Violence Against Women in Uganda Continues Unchecked and Unpunished. Amnesty International Publications. (2010): 9.
 
[23]Barrow, Amy. “UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820: Constructing Gender in Armed Conflict and International Humanitarian Law,” International Review of the Red Cross. 92(2010): 221-234.
 
[24]Amnesty International. ’I Can’t Afford Justice’: Violence Against Women in Uganda Continues Unchecked and Unpunished. Amnesty International Publications. (2010).
 
[25]Ibid., 16.
 
[26]Ibid., 25.
 
[27]Ibid., 9.
 
[28]Stark, Lindsay; L. Roberts, W. Wheaton, A. Acham, N. Boothby. “Measuring Violence Against Women Amidst War and Displacement in Northern Uganda Using the ‘Neighborhood Method,’” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 63(2010): 1056-1061.
 
[29]Okello, Moses C. and L. Hovil. “Confronting the Reality of Gender-Based Violence in Northern Uganda.” International Journal of Transitional Justice. 1(2007):433-443.
 
[30]Annan, Jeanie and M. Brier. “The Risk of Return: Intimate Partner Violence in Northern Uganda’s Armed Conflict,” Social Science and Medicine. 70(2010): 152-159.
 
[31]Orach, Christopher Garimoi. “Perceptions of Human Rights, Sexual and Reproductive Health Services in Internally Displace Persons in Northern Uganda,” African Health Services. 9(2009): 72-80.
 


 [RS1]I think of “coroner” when I see medical examiner.

 [RS2]This quote is just hanging. Can you write something to introduce it?