I Am Not Who They Think I Am: New ICTJ and MediaStorm Film Confronts Stigma Facing Children Born of War

2/1/2017

When Janet Arach was still a schoolgirl, she was abducted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). She was one of thousands of children in northern Uganda who suffered the same fate. In many ways, captivity put a heavier burden on girls than boys.

“They tell you that you are not a wife, but a soldier. Meanwhile they will be using you for sex. There is no way that you can escape that. You have to accept to protect yourself,” Janet recalled.

Janet –a protagonist of I Am Not Who They Think I Am, a new film by ICTJ and MediaStorm– was forced to marry an LRA rebel and gave birth to two children during her eight years in captivity. When the opportunity to escape finally arose, Janet seized it. She fled with her two girls –of four years and six months old– during an attack, escaping amidst a hail of bullets.

“There was no food. I was very weak. My youngest child, she didn’t have milk, so she had to feed on raw cassava [yucca]. I was carrying bones but no flesh,” Janet explained. “But because the child was still breathing, I said, ‘I cannot throw the child, I have to go with the child.’”

Miraculously, the three made it safely to Gulu, the biggest city of northern Uganda. She hoped this would be the end of their long hardship. However, she found that she and her children were not welcome in the community because of their time in the “bush” – that is, because of their time with the LRA.

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The children born in captivity and their mothers were stigmatized for their connection to the crimes the LRA had committed in northern Uganda during the conflict, and suffered emotional and financial hardship as a result. Janet had difficulty meeting her children’s needs and her own, and the children themselves faced widespread scorn from the community.

“Some teachers, if they know a child is born in captivity, they just refer you to the bush,” Janet said. “‘You behave just like your father. You still want to bring it here. You are the bush child.’”

Such rejection is all too common for children born in LRA captivity and their mothers: More than 60,000 children were abducted in northern Uganda during the conflict, and some 8,000 were born as a consequence of sexual violence.

Because the crimes committed against these mothers have gone unaddressed and unacknowledged for years, there has been a cascade of harms. I Am Not Who They Think I Am exposes the stigma they face and advocates for their right to reparations and redress from the state.

The film tells the story of Janet Arach and Stella Lanam. It chronicles the obstacles both women faced in reintegrating into their communities after years in captivity under the LRA, and illustrates their inspiring leadership in the struggle for redress for them and for the children they bore as a result of the conflict. In addition to the film, the ICTJ is also releasing multimedia content which includes extended interviews with Janet Arach, Virginie Ladish, ICTJ’s director of Children and Youth program, to shine further light on the struggle for redress of children born of war.


Janet Arach, founder of Watye Ki Gen and one of the protagonists of I Am Not Who They Think I Am. (Marta Martinez/ICTJ)


From Rejection to Redress

I Am Not Who They Think I Am is part of a broad research project started by ICTJ in Uganda in 2015, highlighting why redress is essential to restore the rights of women victims of sexual violence during conflict and secure a future for their children born as a consequence of war. Without urgent redress, they will continue on a path of marginalization, poverty and further abuse.

“What’s happening is a complete and outright rejection of these mothers and their children,” said Virginie Ladisch, head of ICTJ’s Children and Youth program. “As a result, they are unable to pursue a life of dignity, and for the children there is almost just no chance for them to succeed.”

The ICTJ report "From Rejection to Redress: Overcoming Legacies of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Northern Uganda," identified the justice priorities of these women and children based on over 250 interviews with victims, community members, advocates, and policy makers. These consultations underlined the fact that for those living with the enduring consequences of forced motherhood, calls to forget the past and look forward cannot be actualized in the face of daily struggles to provide for their children, who are subsequently rejected because of the conflict’s enduring legacies.

The report stressed that while nearly everyone in northern Uganda suffered as a result of the conflict, it is important to acknowledge that the lingering consequences of all violations are not the same. The report offers practical recommendations to meet the specific needs of war-affected women and their children, including addressing social stigma and providing education as well as symbolic and material reparations.

The consultations took place in the northern regions of Acholi, Lango, Teso, and West Nile in April 2015 to analyze the long-term consequences of the lack of accountability for sexual violence committed during the conflict. Among those interviewed there were 52 children born of sexual violence (27 girls, 25 boys), who reflected on the challenges they face through group discussions and drawing exercises.

“This is an issue that hasn’t received much attention and adequate policy response,” said Sarah Kihika Kasande, ICTJ head of office in Uganda. “We hope that the film will raise awareness about this issue and catalyze action on a national and international level.”

Nothing can capture more clearly the ongoing impact of sexual violence than the words written by these young women and men. ICTJ presented a selection of their drawings, in which they share their thoughts on how the communities perceive them, how they see themselves and their hopes for the future.


Stella Lanam of Women’s Advocacy Network and a protagonist of I Am Not Who They Think I Am. (Marta Martinez/ICTJ)


Victims turned Leaders

Far from remaining passive about the hardships they endure, Stella and Janet became leaders in the struggle for redress.

“People are not talking about the children brought from captivity. People are stigmatizing them,” Janet said.

To help children born in captivity have a future, Janet co-founded Watye Ki Gen –which means “we have hope” in Luo, an indigenous language. The organization has taken the lead in identifying and documenting children born in captivity and bringing them together in support groups. It provides counseling and support to the children, helping them address the stigma they face both at home and within their communities. They also involve parents, family members and teachers in their conversations.

“Most of the children born in captivity, they say they have challenges with their mothers,” Janet explains. “Some mothers, they are very rude. If she is annoyed, she’ll say ‘I’m tired of you! You don’t know how much I suffered with you.’”

Watye Ki Gen helps these children cope emotionally with this sort of rejection, empowering them to assert their rights though group and individual sessions.

“They don’t have land, they don’t have identity, they are rejected, they are discriminated,” Janet said of the children born in captivity. “If other people could come to support us, I know the future of these children will be brighter.”

Stella is a member of the Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN), an organization founded by abducted women to advocate for social justice and economic security for formerly abducted young women and their children born of conflict in northern Uganda. It aims to help its members become self-sufficient and engaged citizens, offering literacy classes and helping them petition the government to fulfill their rights.

WAN’s members produce jewelry, bags, toys and more in order to raise money to cover school fees. While these school fees are typically between $50-200 annually, their mothers also struggle to pay for basic needs like food and medication. Because of the stigma they carry, they are unable to find jobs or even own land to make a living.

“We thought if we came together and shared our challenges with each other, then we would be able to share the burden among ourselves,” Stella says. “When a woman has all the things she needs for her wellbeing, no man can fool her or take advantage of her. She will be empowered.”

Learn more about Watye Ki Gen and WAN’s work through this photo gallery.


Children born of conflict in Gulu work with Watye Ki Gen. (Marta Martinez/ICTJ)


“We Are Ugandans Also”

I Am Not Who They Think I Am aims to help end the stigma against these women and their children and amplify their work. It also highlights the need for local and international attention on this issue.

Film screenings held in October 2016 in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and in Gulu, where Janet and Stella live, led to significant community discussion and support. The events brought together victims, senior politicians, donors, media, civil society representatives, professors and students for discussions on how to combat stigma these women and children are facing and how to bring the Uganda government to enact polices which would provide for their redress.

“It is not the children’s wish to be born in captivity; neither was it the wish of their parents to be in captivity,” said Santa Oketa, District Counselor in the Gulu District. “They found themselves there…and it is our responsibility to help them come out of this trauma and really help them to get a better future. We need to care.”

At the Gulu screening, two young people who were born in captivity spoke about the challenges they face in their daily life.

Lanyeno Peace was one of the young people to address the community. “We want to study,” she said. “All of us, we want to go to school, so that we become bright Ugandans. Since we are Ugandans also.”

It is that need to be recognized as Ugandans – as members of the community and citizens who hold of rights – that the women and children alike agree is essential to their struggle.

Following the film’s screenings in Uganda, its two protagonists, Janet Arach and Stella Lanam have been awarded the EU 2017 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk for their work in the struggle for the rights of children born of war and their mothers.

How You Can Help

Janet and Stella’s personal stories are reflective of the stories of thousands of other women who were abducted as young girls and who suffered conflict-related sexual violence. Their respective organizations, Watye Ki Gen and the Women’s Advocacy Network, are doing what they can with very limited means to identify, support, and advocate for the rights and respect of women and children affected by the conflict in northern Uganda.

However, a few individuals or organizations alone cannot overcome the obstacles facing children born of wartime sexual violence and their mothers as they pursue dignity and economic self-sufficiency. Regardless of where each of us falls within the global community –whether we’re working on the local level or on an international scale – we all have a role to play. As concerned citizens we must do our part to address the rejection of these women and children and ensure that their rights are protected.

If you are moved by the stories of Janet and Stella, please help support their cause by:

  • Supporting the work of Watye Ki Gen and the Women’s Advocacy Network by donating here*
  • Sharing this documentary broadly with your networks to raise awareness about the enduring consequences of wartime sexual violence, particularly on children born of rape worldwide. Use the hashtag #NotWhoTheyThinkIAm to join the global conversation.
  • If you are a citizen of Uganda and are interested to know how to affect your country’s policy on this issue, please write to Sarah Kihika Kasande at: skasande@ictj.org
  • If you are a citizen of a country outside Uganda and are interested to know how to affect your country’s policy on this issue, please write to Virginie Ladisch at: vladisch@ictj.org

*Disclaimer: ICTJ is in no manner involved in the fundraising, receipt, or distribution of funds on behalf of Watye Ki Gen, WAN, or any other organization working with children born of conflict in northern Uganda or elsewhere. All donations made through the link above are handled directly by Watye Ki Gen and WAN, through Generosity. ICTJ makes no representations as to the legal or tax status of Watye Ki Gen or WAN, nor as to the tax, legal or financial consequences of making a donation to these or any other charities through the above link.

The children who appear in the opening and school scenes are not children born in captivity. ICTJ appreciates their participation in the film.