The Child-Mothers of Uganda

Maggie Alerotex, Northern Uganda, September 9, 2004

Child-Mother with her eleven-month-old son

Child-mother Janet, who was abducted at age ten, cries as she holds her eleven-month-old son at a rehabilitation center in Northern Uganda on Nov. 20, 2003. (Photo: Marco Longari/AFP-Getty Images)

Mothers all over the world have hopes and dreams for their children. In ordinary circumstances, such hopes and dreams often come true.

However, that cannot be said of the child-mothers in Northern Uganda.

They were children themselves — now child-mothers, created by an 18-year-old war between President Museveni and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony

These child-mothers, between 15-23 years of age, lived in captivity for more than ten years after unwillingly being taken to Sudan and indoctrinated into the ways of Kony rebels, where they were used as sex objects, raped, defiled and forced to be “wives” to rebel commanders.

Even girls 12 years of age and younger were not spared. They have now come back to Uganda pregnant or with malnourished babies, to face the challenges of raising their children single-handedly. They live in fear and misery, constantly reliving their maltreatment, scarred permanently by their horrendous experiences of the sexual abuses they endured.

In the bush they faced the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, estimated to be as high as 30%, which is their major worry. And due to the unhygienic conditions in the bush, many of their children have come back with severe skin infections and illnesses.

The war in the region destroyed all the infrastructure, escalated HIV/AIDS infection, created bad governance, and has squeezed and incarcerated 1.6 million internally displaced people (IDPS) into approximately 66 camps.

Political repression, illiteracy, ignorance, disease and abject poverty have become commonplace.

How child-mothers are to realize their hopes and dreams and those of their children under such conditions is a question we must all ask ourselves.

With their parents murdered, homes burned-out, relatives not willing to accommodate them and the fathers of their children either dead or unable to live up to their responsibilities, life is extremely hard for these child-mothers as they look for ways to raise their “families” completely alone.

“I have three children and I don’t know where their father is. I last saw him when I was pregnant with the third child. My parents were murdered in Pagak camp and my relatives cannot take care of me because their conditions are just as bad as mine. I just have to struggle on my own and see that my children do not suffer. I pray that some Good Samaritan may come to my rescue,” says Evelyn Acha, a 19 year old who was abducted by Kony rebels when she was eleven.

Because of the breakdown in the social order, nobody really knows the exact number of child-mothers. According to statistics at the World Vision Centre of Uganda Children of War and Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO), a conservative estimate puts the number of child-mothers who have come through Gulu centers alone, at over 4,000. The total number for the whole of Northern Uganda is unknown.

Apart from the incomprehensible psychological and physical trauma that the child-mothers have experienced in the bush, they have also lost all self-esteem and confidence. With their lives destroyed in the bush, the girls find it extremely hard to integrate themselves into their communities. Having been violated, they feel stigmatized and ashamed of themselves even though they were just victims of the war. They also feel that their own communities and relatives will reject them as unworthy of living with them.

“It’s so hard for me especially with my four children. I find it hard interacting with people who have never been to the bush because I feel they belong to a different world, so I prefer to be on my own. Besides I feel embarrassed with all these children, approaching someone for help. We are only surviving by the grace of God,” says Rose Akech, a child-mother, now a night commuter.

What is a night commuter? This is a sad phenomenon that has developed in the last few years. Mainly child-mothers from areas surrounding urban centers in the North commute to those towns at night and sleep on shop verandas, for fear of being abducted by the LRA. Early in the morning, they move back to their homes. They feel safe during the day — it is the night that haunts them.

A must see video titled The Invisible Children documents the lives of the night commuters throughout the North, whose numbers are estimated to be close to 300,000.

For other child-mothers, their home is the street.

Some of the NGOs such as the World Vision and GUSCO have stepped in to help the child-mothers with counseling and temporary housing. After a short period of psychosocial counseling at the reception centers of World Vision, and GUSCO respectively, the child-mothers are expected to find alternative homes. World Vision gives them a period of one to two weeks for those without serious complications, and three to six months for those with special cases, which are normally health related, to find a place to live.

Micheal Oruni the Center Co-coordinator says the numbers of child-mothers being rescued are so overwhelming that they do not have enough resources to cater to them for very long.

“We ask them to find shelter with relatives, then we give them basic skills — training in tailoring and catering so that they can try to find employment and stand on their own…For those who have nowhere else to go, we provide housing for them for a period of six months, when they, too, are expected to become independent” comments Michael Oruni. He also says that the organization pays to send their children to school but does not always have the money to send the child-mothers to school.

“Everybody donates material items, but we need money more than that because these children have to go back to school. Even the Universal Primary Education (UPE) comes with costs that they cannot meet if they don’t have money. My appeal is that people should donate money, not clothes or blankets, they already have enough of that,” says Oruni.

Not all child-mothers pass through reception centers. Some child-mothers end up homeless on the streets when they are rejected by GUSCO because they do not meet the criteria for entering into their program.

Some of them prefer the anonymity of the streets where they at least control their own lives in spite of the hardships of street life. Typical of homeless people, during the day they are always seen with bundles and loads on their heads, babies clinging on their backs, some carrying their small children as well as mats or blankets — moving about looking for food, help in kind, or money.

The rebels abducted Nighty Achii, then eight, from her home in Pece. Now she is 18 and has two children. After giving birth to the second child, she never saw her “husband” again.

“He went to fight but never came back. He was lieutenant Milton Akena. After two days, I was told UPDF soldiers killed him. I cried not for him, but for my children who would grow up in misery and not knowing who their father was. When I came back, I stayed with World Vision for three months but I had to find a place of my own since they could not keep me there forever. My parents were murdered and my relatives are too poor to help me, they live in IDPS concentration camps. I have to survive on my own and raise my children. It is not easy but somehow our lives have to move on. I believe in God and I know one day He will have mercy on us,” said Nighty tearfully.

Although “time heals all wounds” these young girls might never heal. They live in constant fear of being re-abducted; they feel only helplessness as poverty bites them. They want to go back to school, but the few organizations sponsoring child-mothers cannot take all of them; others have nowhere to live with their babies. Still others, who desperately need an education, can’t return to school because daycare facilities are needed to look after their pre-school aged children.

Education must be practical and tailored to their needs. Some of the girls suffer from trauma, or attention deficit, while others feel intimidated sitting in a classroom with much younger girls who have not gone through what they have.

The question is what does the future hold for these child-mothers, considering their situation?

Even though there are organizations willing to send them back to school, they cannot provide for all of them because of their increasing numbers. They have the right to education and protection, yet who will give them the assistance they need, dry their tears, ease their pains and heal their wounds?

These young mothers are the epitome of the human tragedy of the war in the north of Uganda.

They are victims of the most vicious circumstances — destitute orphans, victims of rape and defilement, night commuters, who have had any chance of education taken away from them as a result of their abduction.

Whatever category they fall under, these young girls require much help to begin to integrate into their communities, to move on with their lives and raise their children.

President Museveni ought to know that the welfare of these child-mothers, who are victims of his war with the rebels, can’t be predicated on the support for his bid to stay in power for life, as former dictator Idi Amin tried to do before being overthrown in 1979.

These victims of Museveni’s 18-year-old war need real help — not his copious crocodile tears.

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