For Effective Justice for Women in Northern Uganda, Listen to Survivors


The people of northern Uganda continue to suffer the consequences of former hostilities between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Government of Uganda.

Within a widespread campaign of violence directed at civilians in which thousands were killed or abducted, and millions of people displaced, women and girls were specifically targeted. They suffered rape, abduction, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced labor, mutilation, and other forms of sexual violence. Many of them were forced to live in camps for those internally displaced, which had poor sanitation, limited access to clean water, food, and health facilities.

Today, survivors of rape or sexual violence face high level of stigmatization from their community and family, and most are yet to see justice for the harm they suffered. Although victims have the right to official recognition of their experiences and need to be provided with meaningful responses to recover, stigma and ongoing marginalization of women has largely silenced their views about what kind of justice they want for themselves, their families, and their country.

As the efforts continue to fast-track the adoption of the National Transitional Justice Policy and to determine how it will be implemented, now is precisely the time for women to be at the table.

In recognition of the need for future transitional justice efforts to include women and provide them with the redress they are owed, ICTJ has released a new report, Confronting Impunity and Engendering Transitional Justice Processes in Northern Uganda, which provides insights on how women have been affected by the conflict, and how emerging plans for transitional justice in the country can be responsive to their needs.

Based on surveys ICTJ conducted with nearly 100 women, the report outlines specific types of gender-based violations that were experienced in northern Uganda. It is also identifies the intermediate and long-term needs of these victims in any truth-seeking process, as well as at defining what reparations should be delivered. In conclusion, the report offers recommendations made by victims’ groups to the government as to how best devise gender-inclusive transitional justice initiatives.

“For too often, ‘official’ discussions of transitional justice have ignored or excluded the experiences of women in the context of conflict,” said Sarah Kasande Kihika, Program Associate with ICTJ’s Uganda program. “If Uganda is to design effective approaches to ensure victims’ right to truth, justice, and reparation, it must first understand women’s experiences of the conflict —and its aftermath; and why these experiences have been distinctly different from those of men.”

Facing the Impact of Conflict on Women

The conflict in northern Uganda between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony and the government of Uganda has its immediate roots in the country’s troubled history following independence in 1962. This conflict was marked with widespread impunity for gross human rights violations, committed particularly against women and girls. An estimated 75,000 children were abducted and forced to serve as combatants, porters and sexual slaves before 2005. According to a UN Secretary-General report on the abduction of children about 85 percent of girls who arrive at a Gulu Trauma Centre for former abductees of the LRA had contracted sexual diseases during their captivity.

The Juba agreement, passed in 2006, promised the unique needs of women and children would be recognized and addressed through future transitional mechanisms, such as truth-seeking and reparations. Consequently, the Transitional Justice Working Group was established by the government—under the Justice, Jaw and Order Sector (JLOS)— noting the importance of gender mainstreaming in the development of transitional justice processes in Uganda, as well as calling for the involvement of women in decision-making processes.

Whereas the draft Transitional Justice Policy recognizes Gender equality as one of its guiding principles, and while JLOS has reiterated its commitment to allowing women to help guide plans for transitional justice, there has been limited involvement of women in processes that inform the development of the transitional justice policy. In addition the draft policy does not elaborate how gender considerations will be mainstreamed in the Transitional justice process.

Overall, political stalling has made the process has been slow, leading to widespread disillusionment and frustration among victims.

ICTJ’s new report, Confronting Impunity and Engendering Transitional Justice Processes in Northern Uganda, illustrates the multitude of ways the war has affected the lives of women and girls, and is based on consultations with women’s groups in Gulu, Lira and Soroti in March 2013. Over seventy women participated from 18 districts.

Overwhelmingly, victims say stigma—especially around rape and sexual violence—has prevented their communities from knowing just how much they have been affected by the conflict. The report emphasizes that transitional justice efforts—like truth-seeking—are opportunities for these stories to be told for the first time, and for their communities to listen.

“Stigma against victims of sexual violence is a difficult issue to address in a patriarchal society,” said Kasande Kihika. “However, through community awareness and sensitization we can begin to change attitudes from victim shaming-and-blaming to one of support.”

For many communities, it’s clear that even though the highest levels of violence have subsided, the war has disrupted even the subtlest level of communal relations and family norms.

For example in Lira, the issue of displacement has had a profound impact in the region and concern was expressed that long periods in the displacement camps had eroded traditional roles and values. This was reflected in high divorce rates, increased domestic violence and marital rape, increases in forced early marriage, as well as high birth rates. There was also discussion about the rise of opportunistic crimes such as theft and robbery due to the general breakdown of the rule of law.

Overwhelmingly, the high levels of poverty in the region were seen as a consequence of the years of instability and this in turn had created increased vulnerability among women.

The war’s economic toll on women must be a consideration when designing reparations for women, the ICTJ study reports. Other urgent needs of women should also inform the design of reparations programs: for example, women and young girls who were subjected to sexual violence while in captivity have emphasized the need for psycho-social support and the need for counseling centers to help with the healing process.

Additionally, Kihika notes that official apologies can work to provide formal acknowledgment to victims, and act as a symbolic gesture of honoring those who have suffered the most.

“The horrors these women went through continue to be denied outright by officials at the highest levels,” she said. “If the country cannot look them in the eye and truly listen to how their lives have been changed by this violence, efforts to change the course of our country through transitional justice may miss its mark.”

Implementation Process

In the first week of October, ICTJ conducted a high level conference on the transitional justice draft law in Uganda, discussed strategies for the effective implementation of the policy, including gender-sensitivity. The findings of the new ICTJ study were presented to the participants at the meeting, facilitating a discussion between representatives of several major government ministries, with contributions from civil society groups, victims groups, and human rights NGOs.

“The very fact that gender-based violence such as land dispossession, lack of access to education, stigma of victimization, and economic disempowerment is being considered and talked about in a gender-sensitive transitional justice context was very encouraging to us,” said Amrita Kapur, ICTJ Gender Justice Senior Associate. “We hope that by presenting the views of these survivors, the country can deliver on its promises of truth and justice to women and girls.”

Photo: September 4, 2011, Uganda --- Young Ugandan mothers wait patiently to visit the community health promoter. Despite determined global progress in reducing child deaths, an increasing proportion of child deaths are in sub-Saharan Africa where one in nine children die before the age of five and in Southern Asia where one in 16 die before age five. ---(Dougal Thomas/Corbis / APImages)