From Rejection to Redress: Overcoming Legacies of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Northern Uganda

Virginie Ladisch
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The conflicts in northern Uganda witnessed wide-scale perpetration of serious crimes, including murder, abduction, torture, forced displacement, forced recruitment, destruction of property, and various forms of sexual and gender-based violations, including rape, sexual slavery, and forced marriage.

While considerable resources have been expended on humanitarian, recovery, and development programs in conflict-affected areas, the crimes committed during past conflicts by both rebels and state actors have not been accompanied by any significant measure of accountability, truth seeking, or acknowledgment by the state. In many respects, this absence of redress has poisoned the atmosphere in some communities with recrimination, resentment, and stigmatization, a problem which particularly affects children born of conflict-related sexual violence and their mothers.

Considering the unique and enduring consequences of sexual and gender based violations, this report focuses specifically on the impact of the lack of accountability for sexual crimes that lead to motherhood. The rights of women who suffered conflict-related sexual violence and the children they bore as a result have largely been overlooked by the state; the violations they suffered remain unredressed.

In response to this accountability gap, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) conducted consultations across greater northern Uganda in April 2015 on the long-term challenges and unredressed justice needs of children born as a result of conflict-related sexual violence and of their mothers, in order to inform advocacy efforts that will contribute to acknowledgment, reparations, and justice for this category of victims. This report aims to capture the main issues that emerged from these consultations and offer policy recommendations on how these unmet justice needs could be addressed.

Watch As part of this research project, ICTJ produced a film on the stigma facing children born of conflict and their mothers. Watch "I Am Not Who They Think I Am."

Across the four sub-regions of Acholi, Lango, Teso, and West Nile, ICTJ found that without redress the consequences of motherhood as a result of conflict-related sexual violence multiply and amplify with time, engendering new violations, including ongoing violations of the rights of children born of sexual violence and the rights of their mothers. When the initial violations occurred, the state failed to adequately respond to the needs and rights of the mothers or their children, and now, more than a decade later, the challenges they face have not disappeared, but rather, for many have actually worsened.

A lack of redress compounded by the intersection of multiple factors—discriminatory cultural norms for women who have children out of wedlock; abject poverty and scarce resources , including a lack of land for cultivation; patrilineal systems of identity; and stigma and rejection due to perceived association with rebels—leads to serious challenges that impede mothers and their children born of sexual violence from integrating into the community and becoming self-sufficient citizens who live with dignity.

Largely, these mothers and children have been unable to access the limited government support available for war-affected citizens. Those few mothers who were able to access reintegration assistance through Uganda’s Amnesty Commission received the same inadequate reinsertion package as male returnees and females who returned without children. They were not offered specialized support to account for the burden of caring for children. Thus, these mothers and their children have been left without official recognition or support from the state to overcome the consequences of abuses while also facing stigma, rejection, and blame in their communities.

Further, women in Uganda, in general, have limited access to the justice systems for enforcement of their rights, in particular their land, property, and inheritance rights. For a mother to be able to provide for her child and cope with the consequences of the violation of her rights, a targeted response is needed from the government of Uganda. Such a response should include local and national programs and policies that aim to repair the harm endured, facilitate victims’ acceptance into society, and advance accountability for the violations they suffered. These programs and policies should include official acknowledgement of harm suffered, measures to provide access to land to rejected and ostracized children, the opening of spaces for dialogue and truth telling in order to clarify the context in which the violations occurred, the reforming of discriminatory gender norms and laws that make it very difficult for a single mother to access resources and provide for her child or children, and state-sponsored scholarships that would support their children through school in a way that is not further stigmatizing. The justice system’s capacity also needs to be enhanced to enforce the law and respond to the violations experienced by children born of sexual violence.

Absence of State Support or Redress for the Initial Violation

In considering the particular needs of and challenges faced by children born of sexual violence and their mothers, to date there have been no targeted government initiatives to provide redress or specific support. Rather, the government has provided:

  • Development and reconstruction plans for war-affected communities in the north, with funds often earmarked for particularly vulnerable groups, including internally displaced persons, formerly abducted persons, and widows (yet the government failed to put systems in place to ensure earmarked funds reach the target beneficiaries)
  • The Amnesty Commission, which administered limited reinsertion and reintegration support to those formerly associated with the LRA and other rebel groups (referred to as “returnees,” which includes both those who were abducted and those who voluntarily joined) who reported to the commission and renounced rebellion.

These initiatives technically were available to those forced to bear children as a result of sexual violence and their children, but most mechanisms through which assistance was administered failed to target and reach this specific population, nor did it recognize them specifically as victims worthy of acknowledgment and redress. Assistance measures provided for conflict-affected communities and returnees were problematic for three primary reasons:

  • they largely failed to reach and provide support to mothers and their children born of sexual violence
  • the material support and funds that were provided were insufficient to address the needs of mothers and their children born of sexual violence
  • assistance was not framed as redress or reparation; therefore, beneficiaries have not been acknowledged or recognized as victims
“The chain of problems has kept increasing for me.” - Lamwo mother
### Situation Facing Mothers and Their Children Born of Sexual Violence

Given the enduring consequences of sexual violence leading to motherhood, providing redress to victims requires a specific response. Th e consequence of the initial violation affects the mother physically and psychologically and also leads to a new life: a child who in most cases comes into the world at a very disadvantaged position. The mother is left to find a way to care and provide for the child when it was not her choice to become a mother.

Further, in a context where women who have children out of wedlock are discriminated against, this problem is exacerbated when the father is a suspected combatant. Without any initiatives to help mothers cope with and overcome the consequences of the violation they suffered, mothers and their children born of sexual violence continue to face numerous challenges and in some cases, insurmountable obstacles.

Consequences for the Mothers

Motherhood as a result of conflict-related sexual violence is a significant and enduring consequence of conflict in northern Uganda.50 Young women and girls became mothers as a result of sexual violence perpetrated by both state and non-state armed groups. Subsequently, the impact of a lack of broader acknowledgement or accountability for past violations combined with severe poverty, social exclusion, discriminatory gender norms, such as those impacting on land ownership and succession, has a cumulative effect, engendering new harms. As one mother from Lamwo explained, “The chain of problems has kept increasing for me.”

Consequences for the Children

The widely held perception that children born of sexual violence lack potential or a future stems in large part from the shadow of their father’s identity. For children who do not know their fathers, the fathers’ perceived association with rebels will nevertheless loom over them, obscuring their possibilities for advancement and integration in the community. Fathers, despite their absence, pass on their identity as LRA combatants, but the child does not get any potential benefit of clan membership, land access, or belonging that would come with knowing his or her father’s full identity. In Uganda’s patrilineal system of identity provision, as one local official from Agweng noted, “People treat it as if the father is everything, the plan of the home.” For many children, not knowing their father leads to a situation where they cannot access land and thus are not able to earn an income. As a result, they cannot pay their school fees or courses in skills training, leaving them with very limited opportunities for the future.

Intergenerational Legacy

Testimonies shared with ICTJ by mothers and their children born of sexual violence across the four sub-regions showed that the initial violation inflicted on the mother when unacknowledged and unredressed has severe consequences for her and her children as well as caretakers that provide support to the children. As a formerly abducted young mother from Kitgum reflected, “The rejection followed my child.”

The cascade of violations continues with the mother’s grandchildren. Several girls interviewed who were born as a result of sexual violence, in turn, were victims of rape and gave birth to children. These children are now experiencing the same problems of rejection as their mothers and grandmothers. This reinforces the intergenerational cycle of vulnerability, abuse, and marginalization. “My boy is already walking,” shared an 18-year-old girl from Tubur (who was born in captivity), about her 1-year-old son. “When he goes to the neighbors’, they don’t want him. They will tell my son that I have gone the opposite direction so that he gets lost while looking for me.”

For another young girl born of sexual violence, not only did she inherit the stigma faced by her grandmother and mother, she also inherited HIV. “My grandmother was raped [by government soldiers]. My mother was raped [by the LRA] and 3 months after I was born she died. She was HIV-positive and now I am too. They call me the LRA daughter. I was supposed to be married, but the community told [the groom] I was an LRA daughter and not to marry me,” explained a 17-year-old girl as she nursed her 3-month-old daughter. She had been warned not to breastfeed due to the risk of passing on HIV, but she could not afford to buy baby formula.

This cumulative effect of violations is likely to continue if there is no intervention, support, or provision for comprehensive redress, including accountability by the state.

“Stigma is like a scar; you can’t do away with it completely.”- mother in Gulu

A Closer Look at Rejection and Lack of Access

The previous sections highlight numerous challenges facing children born of sexual violence, their mothers, and caretakers. These can be traced back to the consequence of the lack of redress for the initial violation of sexual violence that led to forced pregnancy, which has been compounded by poverty; discriminatory social and cultural norms, including those relating to gender; rejection; and lack of access to government support.

These challenges require varied responses, including assistance in development, justice, and humanitarian support, and social and cultural change. From a policy perspective, two problems in particular—rejection and lack of access to support—warrant further examination, in order to better understand the problem and identify effective responses at both the local and national levels.

Way Forward

Learn more about grassroots efforts the meet women's needs in northern Uganda work through this photo gallery.

Recognizing that the challenges facing mothers and their children born of sexual violence are very complex, it is important to look at the entire situation and identify areas where specifi c actors can advance a response that contributes to respecting the rights of children born of sexual violence and their mothers, so they are able to live in dignity and peace.

In the absence of acknowledgment and any official discussion around the circumstances and context that led to the conflicts in northern Uganda, it is outrageously simple to blame the children born as a result of sexual violence and their mothers. If not addressed, the discrimination and rejection facing these mothers and their children will continue to be a significant obstacle that will limit the effectiveness of any proposed solution.

As part of an effort to counteract this discrimination and community rejection, it needs to be made clear that girls and women who were raped or forced into marriage and as a result had forced pregnancies are victims of serious crimes. At the community level, there needs to be recognition that these women suffered severe violations of their rights and that now their children are suffering further rights violations.

Numerous victims consulted by ICTJ hold the government of Uganda accountable for past violations. However, some leaders, particularly cultural and religious leaders, suggested that in the case of children born in captivity the solution lies in getting LRA fathers to pay child support and take responsibility for the children they fathered. This is problematic because many mothers do not want to have any relationship with the fathers of their children and, in many cases, the fathers are not in a position to provide support. From a policy perspective, it is the state that must assume responsibility for redress, rather than individuals who are not in a position to provide the required level of redress.

Domestic and international legal instruments and declarations clearly entrench the state’s obligation to provide an effective remedy to victims of gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law. This obligation has been interpreted to include investigation of the circumstances in which the violation occurred, compensation for the harm suffered, punishment of the perpetrator found liable for committing the violation, and taking measures to ensure that similar violations do not occur in future.

Further, the state has the primary obligation to ensure that children born of sexual violence enjoy the same rights as other children. These rights are encompassed in the Children’s Act, which domesticates the international Convention on the Rights of the Child. These rights include the right to education and guidance, the right to an adequate diet, the right to shelter, the right to health care, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to be protected from discrimination, abuse and neglect, and the right to be protected from harmful customary practices. Provisions in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Uganda is a party, are instructive of the government of Uganda’s responsibility to respect and enforce the rights of children born of sexual violence and protect them from all forms of discrimination.

It also requires states to provide special assistance and protection to children deprived of a family environment or in whose own best interests cannot be allowed to remain in an unconducive environment. In order to end the cycle of revictimization and provide meaningful redress to these women and children, the government of Uganda must assume responsibility for both its acts of commission and omission that continue to negatively affect many of its citizens, especially children born of war and their mothers in northern Uganda. Ideally this should originate at the national level. However, if that process is stalled, it is also very important to explore openings at the regional, sub-regional, and local levels. It may be possible, and perhaps more expeditious, to advance acknowledgment and repair through local initiatives, including the district development plans and other resources managed at the local level.

"The failure to address these violations perpetuates impunity, has implications for the future development of the country, and has a regressive effect on the recovery of the region. As noted by a district leader in Adjumani, “Today it may seem small, but tomorrow it becomes a very big issue.”


A decade after major fighting in northern Uganda has ceased and the majority of government and humanitarian aid has shifted elsewhere, this report provides insight into what happens when motherhood as a result of conflict-related sexual violence conflict is not met with the targeted and serious response it requires. In a cultural and social context that discriminates against children born out of wedlock and rejects those associated with rebel groups, the initial crime of sexual violence leading to motherhood by members of armed groups has reverberations that will be felt for generations to come.

Without targeted support, mothers and their children born of sexual violence are set on a trajectory of poverty, discrimination, violence, and mounting obstacles to living a life of dignity where their rights are respected. The 2014 Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium study conducted in Acholi and Lango confirms this: a household that suffered sexual violence at the hands of parties to the conflict was 10 times more likely to be victims of crime in the past three years than households that did not experience serious crimes during the war.

For those living with the enduring consequences of forced motherhood, calls to forget the past and look forward cannot be actualized when, every day, mothers struggle to overcome obstacles in an effort to provide for their children born in the difficult circumstances of conflict who are subsequently rejected because of the conflict’s enduring legacies.

If the government of Uganda is committed to revitalizing and rebuilding the north following decades of conflict preceded by economic marginalization, women who were forced to become mothers and their children born of conflict-related sexual violence need, and have the right to, a response that is in line with the magnitude of the challenges they now face. This response must include acknowledgment of past violations, clarification of the context in which those violations took place, setting the record straight about who should bear responsibility for past crimes (and who were victims), and providing measures of targeted reparations for these mothers and their children, matched by measures that also address the grievances of the community in relation to the violations they suffered.

It is true that nearly everyone in northern Uganda suffered as a result of the conflict; however, it is important to acknowledge the enduring consequences of all violations are not the same. Women and girls whose rights were violated when they suffered sexual abuse and became mothers as a result must receive prompt and adequate redress. Moreover, the situation facing children born of sexual violence in Uganda provides a glimpse into the future for other countries dealing with similar vulnerable populations. It should serve as a reminder that the enduring consequences of sexual violence deserve targeted attention.

It should not just be the most vocal or the most politically salient victims who receive forms of redress. Rather, an understanding of the specific consequences of violations and how they evolve over time should guide a government’s response to dealing with large numbers of victims, including children born of sexual violence, in the aftermath of protracted conflict.