“I Know the Medicine I Need”: Survivors’ Experiences Must Shape Policy

7/8/2016

Evelyn Amony knows what survivors of sexual and gender-based violence need. She has first-hand experience living as a captive of the Ugandan rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which abducted her when she was eleven years old. She later became a forced wife of its leader, Joseph Kony, bearing her first child at just 14 years old and giving birth to two more before she escaped 11 years after her capture. Since leaving the LRA, she has become an advocate for justice, acknowledgement and accountability of sexual and gender-based violations faced by women during the conflict in northern Uganda, as the Head of the Women’s Advocacy Network.

Amony’s struggles are recounted in her memoir I am Evelyn Amony: Reclaiming My Life from the Lord’s Resistance Army, which launched in New York in mid June and was followed by a workshop convened by ICTJ, UN Women and the Liu Institute for Global Issues, University of British Columbia. The workshop brought together survivors of conflict from Uganda, Kenya, and Colombia with policy-makers, practitioners and donors, who together examined how to design policies that address victims’ needs.

Through this workshop, ICTJ sought to give survivors an international platform to push for recognition and redress in ways that are tailored to their demands and needs, not external agendas.

Amony explained that she wrote the book so that people could better understand the experience of women and children in conflict. “Truth is wealth. Truth gives us more knowledge," she said.

Erin Baines, professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues from University of British Columbia and editor of Amony’s memoir, asserted that women must not be reduced to victims: “We are often too quick to focus on what we expect to hear – horror stories – and not what is said: stories of strength, courage and survival.”

These sentiments are echoed in ICTJ’s report “From Rejection to Redress: Overcoming Legacies of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Northern Uganda,” which informed ICTJ’s involvement in the workshop. The event was also the first time the report was presented in New York City. Virginie Ladisch, head of ICTJ’s Children and Youth Program, said: “We wanted to give visibility to the findings of our report and also build on the recommendations. Amony’s memoir was a good opportunity to spark this discussion on the wider issues.”

Ladisch emphasized the importance of the partnerships formed with the Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN) and other civil society organizations during the writing of this report and stressed that it is a long-term commitment that ICTJ is aiming for. “Our goal is joint programming, joint strategizing, where we each bring what we can to the table: civil society organizations’ intimate knowledge of the situation, the challenges, and what’s needed to overcome them, and international partners such as ICTJ leverage their access and power to help advocate for those ideas,” said Ladisch.

Survivors Speak

Amony’s voice was joined by those of other survivors of wartime gender-based violence. Jacqueline Mutere founded Grace Agenda, a Kenyan women’s organization, after she survived rape during the country’s post-election violence in 2007-2008. She explained why, as a survivor, her voice is essential in policy discussions. “I know the path I walked and I know the medicine I need,” she said. Mutere spoke at length about the psychological struggle before and after giving birth to her daughter, Princess, and how this led her to found Grace Agenda as a way to unite with other women in her position. “Why should a fight be played out on my body?” she asked.

Maria Alejandra Martinez of Colombia also spoke to her experiences as a survivor. After growing up as a member of the leftist guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), Martinez entered a reintegration program in 2006 when she was 16 years old. “I didn’t understand the process at all and it seemed unfair,” she explained. “I realized the programs weren’t prepared for children or young women who were demobilizing and it was important that I speak up to help change the reintegration process.”

Martinez now works with the Aliarte Youth Network, which seeks to address the shortcomings of reintegration programs for women in Colombia. She campaigns for spaces to be opened in society to hear victims’ voices so that everyone can learn from their experiences. She also cautioned against underestimating victims and seeing them as “objects for display”, stripped of any agency. “It is important to recognize the strength of women and girls and legitimize their experiences, so that we can effectively reintegrate them into the community,” she said.

Kelli Muddell, director of ICTJ’s Gender Justice program, underscored Martinez’s point: “Women are not objects but subjects.” Muddell highlighted the importance of listening to women who have lived through these experiences in order to understand what is important to them. She urged policy makers to take the needs of survivors seriously in the design and implementation of transitional justice processes.

Reintegration in the Aftermath of Violence

The discussion then shifted to the problems faced by children born of wartime sexual violence. Zainab Bangura, Under Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, described how children born of wartime sexual violence were often met with hostility when returning to their mothers’ communities. “[It is] as if they are born guilty, tainted by their father’s crime.”

She argued that justice is critical to tell the community that the victim is not at fault and that the best way to protect children is to empower their mothers. She highlighted the importance of working with community and religious leaders to support the reintegration process and help remove stigma: “We must not only bring back our girls, we must bring them back to an environment of support and opportunity.”

As a mother to three of Kony’s children, Amony knows well the problems faced by children born of wartime sexual violence. She pointed out that they often miss out on an education because of the stigma attached to them and so they may seek power through violence.

Ladisch stressed that Amony’s memoir complicates the notion of victim and perpetrator and shows the difficulties many women face in reintegration. “In order to address the problems while taking account of this complexity we must take time to listen openly without a pre-conceived notion of what we expect to hear,” Ladisch said. We must then take those accounts and design programmatic responses that are informed and responsive to the perspectives of survivors and their communities.

She stressed the importance of seeking to understand the specific consequences of violations. “[The situation facing children born of sexual violence in Uganda] 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.”

Understanding Violent Extremism through Gender Politics

The final discussion of the day centered on countering violent extremism and the use of a gender lens to understand recruitment and radicalization. Nahla Valji, deputy chief of the Peace and Security Section at UN Women, suggested it is much harder to recruit in communities where women’s leadership is prominent and there is some equality. “With this understanding of recruitment, we can counter violent extremism by promoting the leadership of women,” she stressed.

As the final session concluded, Amony, Mutere and Martinez urged workshop participants to carry the day’s insights forward. They reminded the audience that this workshop was not just about listening to women’s stories but rather it was a call to action. As Ladisch said: the international community must now take these stories, and those from other survivors, and work with them to shape policies that respond to the needs of women and children after conflict.

“It is what justice looks like to me – not UN Women, not the UN Secretary-General – it is what justice looks like to Jackie,” said Mutere.


Photos: Evelyn Amony, Jacqueline Mutere and other survivors of gender-based wartime violence discuss their experiences with policymakers and practitioners.