Breaking the Cycle of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Uganda


Eight years ago, the United Nations General Assembly declared June 19 as the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict in an effort to raise awareness about this endemic tactic of war; honor the innumerable victims and survivors across the world, as well as those working to end these violations; and ultimately eradicate this dehumanizing practice.

History has shown that whenever there is a political or security crisis juxtaposed with a militarized response, conflict-related sexual violence is deployed as a tactic to subdue, dehumanize, and terrorize civilians and opponents. Conflict-related sexual violence includes rape; sexual slavery; forced prostitution, pregnancy, abortion, sterilization, and marriage; and all other comparably grave forms of sexual violence perpetrated against women, men, girls, or boys.

Uganda, whose history is replete with conflict, has not been immune. While the total number of individuals in Uganda affected by these violations is unknown, it is estimated that over the two decades-long conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army, over 25,000 people—women, men, girls, and boys—were victims of sexual and gender-based crimes. During the recent conflicts in the Rwenzori region, there have been reports of similar sexual violence.

Conflict-related sexual and gender-based crimes have enduring consequences for victims. Survivors suffer lifelong physical, psychological, social, and economic harms. These adverse effects and traumas are now intergenerational and passed on from parent to child. Research also shows that survivors of conflict-related sexual violence often experience ongoing violations, including stigma, discrimination, and social and economic exclusion, even during peacetime.  

The commemoration of this day is significant for Uganda because it provides an opportunity to reflect on the progress we have made as a country to prevent the recurrence of conflict-related sexual violence. It also serves as a reminder of the pressing need to combat impunity for these crimes and provide redress to victims and survivors to enable them to live full, meaningful, and dignified lives.

In 2019, the Government of Uganda passed the National Transitional Justice Policy, which, recognizing the country’s past political and constitutional instability, elaborates specific measures necessary to lay the foundation for peace, justice, accountability, healing, and reconciliation. It recognizes the need to repair the physical, social, and psychological harms resulting from these violations, which impede the rehabilitation and reintegration of survivors. However, the absence of an accompanying transitional Justice law to enact the policy has hampered the realization of these goals.

Uganda has contributed to the jurisprudence on sexual and gender-based crimes and the development of relevant legal standards. On December 15, 2022, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court upheld the conviction of Dominic Ongwen, a former child soldier and commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including 19 counts of sexual and gender-based crimes, including rape, forced marriage, torture, enslavement, forced pregnancy, and outrages upon personal dignity. It was the first time anyone has ever been convicted of forced pregnancy and forced marriage as distinct crimes against humanity.

The conviction served a vital recognition of the life-altering horrors that the young girls and women who were abducted experienced. It kickstarted a reparations program to address some of the long-term physical and psychological harms they have suffered. It is incumbent upon the government as the primary duty-bearer to not only implement this program but also provide holistic and appropriate support to survivors, especially those who fall outside the scope of Ongwen’s case.

The Ugandan government must urgently take steps to reduce the high rate of gender-based violence across the country, which contributes to a permissive culture that only worsens during conflict, and deliver justice and repair to survivors. According to Uganda’s 2022 Annual Crimes Report, there were 17,698 registered cases of domestic violence. It is estimated that gender-based violence incidences cost the Uganda economy about 77 billion Shillings annually. Such violence thus incurs not only human, social, and political costs but also economic ones. To achieve the laudable goals envisioned in Vision 2040, we cannot allow any citizens, especially the most vulnerable, to be left behind.

A version of this Op-Ed first appeared in The Monitor (Uganda Edition) on June 19, 2023.

PHOTO: A victims' representative in the Uganda v Thomas Kwoyelo case speaks at an information and outreach session organized by ICTJ for victims in the Amuru district in Northern Uganda on April 12, 2023.