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E.g., 04/25/2024
Surrounded: Women and Girls in Northern Uganda

Surrounded: Women and Girls in Northern Uganda


Women in Northern Uganda line up to fill their containers with water (photo courtesy of USAID)

The brutal conflict in Northern Uganda began more than 19 years ago, but has received little of the attention paid to other such long-running conflicts. While Northern Uganda's violent struggle is officially between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels and the government, civilians are trapped in the middle.

Each segment of the civilian population in the north faces its own horrors. Internally displaced men, for example, may be subjected to forced labor. Boys are kidnapped by the LRA and brutally indoctrinated into life as soldiers.

Displaced women and girls are especially at risk because of the manner in which the war is being fought and because of vulnerabilities unique to their gender. Women and girls also face particular difficulties in seeking physical and legal protection from both sides in the conflict.


Northern Uganda has been wracked by a brutal conflict since 1986, when the LRA — a mysterious insurgency led by a man named Joseph Kony, who claims god-like powers — began its armed campaign against the Ugandan government.

As a movement, the LRA's founding is very loosely rooted in the ongoing power struggle between Northern Uganda and the more southern provinces near the capital, Kampala. However, the tactics of the LRA defy its occasional proclamation that it is fighting for the independence of the Acholi people, the largest ethnic group in Northern Uganda.

The LRA attacks Acholi civilians more often than it launches campaigns against the Ugandan government. On the surface, the LRA's raids on Acholi villages and camps for the displaced restock the forces with supplies and food (the LRA commonly loots villages before destroying them) as well as with new soldiers — kidnapped children.

The attacks serve an even more sinister purpose, as the LRA uses its raids as a means of exerting control over the Acholi population by creating a constant state of fear. Common LRA tactics used to instill such fear include mutilation by cutting off lips, ears, and breasts; rape and forced pregnancy; and forced conscription of children.

Since mid-2002 alone, the LRA has abducted an estimated 12,000 children, who have then been subjected to or forced to witness — or commit — atrocities that compel them to remain with the LRA as fighters, porters, or "wives."

The intensity of the conflict has fluctuated during the past two decades, with the most recent increase in violence occurring in the last two years. By all indications, the LRA is now based in the brush forests of Northern Uganda, and has exponentially increased its attacks and the abduction of children.

In April 2002, there were an estimated 450,000 displaced people in Northern Uganda. As of mid-2004, this number had increased to an estimated 1.5 million, making the tiny region home to the world's third-largest population of internally displaced people (IDPs), behind only Sudan and Colombia. By most estimates, more than 90 percent of the total population of the three provinces that constitute Acholiland — Gulu, Kitgum, and Pader — is displaced.

The Situation Today

During a brutal wave of attacks by the LRA in 1996, the Ugandan government began a policy of forcing civilians in the north out of their homes and into what it termed "protected villages" — in reality, a gentler name for a network of IDP camps. The idea was to group civilians in more easily defensible locations, often surrounding existing or newly constructed army outposts, instead of the highly dispersed, quasi-rural settlements traditional among the Acholi people.

Further, the Ugandan government hoped that with the vast majority of civilians no longer residing in the countryside, the army would have a freer hand to root the LRA out of the bush, leading to a quick military victory.

At first, the protected villages policy could have been considered consistent with the UN's Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (1998). Principles 6 and 7, for example, allow for displacement in extreme circumstances and when the security of civilians so demands, but specify that it should last no longer than required. In addition, authorities should ensure that such displacement is conducted in satisfactory conditions of safety, with adverse effects minimized.

However, nearly a decade after their establishment and wit no military victory in sight, it is difficult to reconcile the continued existence of the villages with the UN's Guiding Principles.

By most accounts, the increased activity by the Ugandan army caused the LRA to become even more mobile, including establishing bases inside southern Sudan. Reports of LRA attacks on civilians, including those in the "villages," are rife, including one on Bobi camp in Gulu the evening before this author's visit there in November 2004.

In the Camps

Displaced women and girls in Northern Uganda have few places to turn for protection from the various entities that seek to harm them.

For women and girls, the term "protected villages" is a misnomer for a variety of reasons. First of all — and not unique to Northern Uganda — women in prolonged camp situations are more vulnerable to abuse from male relatives or partners.

In many cases, the increase in domestic violence found in refugee and IDP camps occurs as a result of the progressive destruction of traditional family and community customs and support structures; this is combined with pervasive and seemingly endless poverty.

In Northern Uganda, camp environments are further strained by massive overcrowding (particularly problematic for a people used to living in large family compounds), insufficient food and services, and a near complete lack of any type of employment opportunities.

Women and girls in the camps in Northern Uganda also face sexual violence and exploitation by the very soldiers who are supposed to protect them. In some cases, the design of the camps can help facilitate such abuse: they are built around an army base or outpost, with often thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of tiny thatch huts surrounding it.

In theory, those huts closest to the army posts should be the most protected, with those on the outskirts the least protected. This may be true in terms of protection against the LRA, but soldiers have been implicated in numerous cases of assault and exploitation, including raping women and girls and threatening to harm family members if women refuse to have sex with them.

Soldiers have also been accused of raping women at water sources and in the fields outside the immediate camp vicinity. They sometimes accuse them of being "rebel collaborators" merely for leaving the camp in search of water or firewood — tasks that fall almost exclusively to women and girls in most traditional African societies, whether they are displaced or not. The soldiers then threaten to expose these "collaborators" to the wider camp population unless the women offer sex in exchange for silence.

Outside the Camps

Until mid-2004, only a small number of the many IDP camps in Northern Uganda were "gazetted" (that is, recognized) by the Ugandan government. Several more camps were gazetted in September 2004, though dozens still remain unofficial. Since only gazetted camps are eligible to receive official humanitarian assistance, tens of thousands of IDPs in camps in Uganda receive little to no assistance.

As a result, women often leave the immediate confines of the camps to search for firewood, tend small gardens, collect water, or perform other domestic necessities. This behavior — while often necessary for family survival — puts women at greater risk of abduction by the LRA.

The precarious security situation throughout the north — especially at night, when the LRA is most likely to attack — has also led to a phenomenon known as "night commuting." Every night, as darkness falls, as many as 50,000 children and teenagers flee their villages and camps to larger towns up to five or more miles away, where they feel less vulnerable to abduction.

In the city centers of Gulu and Kitgum, for example, the children crowd together on the front steps of police stations, hospital, schools, or other public buildings, attempt to sleep as much as they can, and then walk back home in the morning — only to repeat the process again the next night. Many children in Northern Uganda have been night commuting for three years or more.

Though night commuters may be at less risk for abduction, regular long walks along pitch-black roads make these children, especially girls, vulnerable to other kinds of exploitation and attack.

Unlike their male counterparts, female night commuters are often forced by their families to remain at home longer into the evening, in order to finish chores and other domestic responsibilities. Thus they often travel later at night, and in smaller groups, than do many boys.

Young girls are also vulnerable to exploitation by men who know the routes night commuters use, and take advantage of the dire situation and relative immaturity of the girls walking past to convince them to trade sex for money, food, or other necessities.

Lastly, the environments in which night commuters — both boys and girls — stay overnight are often unsupervised, leading to risky sexual behavior, sexually transmitted diseases, and unintended pregnancies.

In LRA Custody

Women and girls in LRA custody live lives of sexual exploitation and assault particular to their gender. Young girls kidnapped by the LRA are often forced to become sex slaves or so-called "wives" of rebel commanders, subject to forced pregnancies aimed at continually repopulating the ranks of LRA fighters.

These girls and women are also at extremely high risk of contracting HIV, and the risk of disease has led LRA commanders to seek increasingly younger female victims, in the hope that they will be "clean." A 2004 survey by the non-government organization (NGO) World Vision found that the HIV/AIDS rate in Northern Uganda is more than twice that in the southern part of the country.

Should women become HIV positive or otherwise no longer be of use to LRA commanders, they may be sent back to their villages. Readjustment to civilian life and the return to families and communities are not easy for any ex-LRA combatant, male or female.

However, whereas boys and men who have escaped or been released from the LRA are often cleansed of any past atrocities they may have committed through an elaborate, traditional Acholi ritual, girls and women — especially those who have borne the children of LRA commanders — are often stigmatized and cast away, or choose not to return at all out of shame.

The Legal Environment

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) outline basic and fundamental human rights regarding gender discrimination and "security of the person," which has been interpreted, inter alia, in terms of sexual behavior.

Uganda ratified CEDAW more than two decades ago, yet the overall legal environment in the country is still not fully protective of women and girls, nor does it facilitate justice for victims of sexual or gender-based violence.

For example, sexual contact outside of marriage with girls under the age of 18 is known in Uganda as "defilement," not rape. Though the official punishment for defilement is death, in practice, according to a variety of human rights NGOs in Uganda, "defilers" are rarely subject to any form of punishment stronger than a slap on the wrist.

Especially in, but not limited to, Northern Uganda, families will often forgive the perpetrator (and/or not press charges) if he agrees to either marry the girl, pay a fine for his actions, or, preferably, both.

In some cases, the desire on the part of a victim's family to receive compensation rather than seek punishment through the judicial system is primarily motivated by dire economic straits. In other cases, it occurs because the family knows they are unlikely to achieve any sort of result — legal or monetary — if they take their chances with the judicial system.

Girls in displaced families are in an even more precarious situation since they are almost fully dependent on government and army assistance for survival, are generally poorer than non-displaced families, and often lack even the most basic education and knowledge of their rights.

It is especially difficult for women and girls who have been assaulted by soldiers to come forward with their accusations. As a result, few, if any soldiers, are ever prosecuted — leading many to continue their actions in relative impunity.

According to a variety of NGOs in Northern Uganda, as well as displaced women themselves, the most severe punishment a soldier implicated in rape is likely to receive is a transfer to a different camp. Stories abound of individual army soldiers and commanders that have been transferred over and over again for this reason, yet never brought to court.

Moreover, victims of sexual and gender-based violence who do come forward are put in a harsher spotlight than the perpetrators. Uganda's highly patriarchal society generally views girls as a financial burden on their families who should be married off as soon as possible.

In this environment, rape or other forms of sexual assault are not always interpreted as crimes in the first place — by anyone except the victims.


Internally displaced women and girls in Northern Uganda are surrounded by elements that may potentially do them harm. The LRA attacks and abducts them, forces them to bear children, and discards them if they fall sick or are no longer useful. The army — charged with protecting all civilians against LRA atrocities — commits egregious acts of gender-based violence.

Women and girls are further failed by a legal system meant to be non-discriminatory but which, in reality, rarely results in punishment of perpetrators of sexually-based offenses. Perhaps cruelest of all, victims of gender-specific sexual violence in Northern Uganda are often spurned by their own families and communities.

This article is based on interviews conducted by the author with Ugandan government officials, UN agencies, NGOs, Ugandan human rights organizations, and women in Bobi IDP camp in Kampala and Gulu, Uganda, in November 2004. The author would like to thank Caroline Ort of the Norwegian Refugee Council-Gulu for her tremendous assistance and advice.

Further Reading:

Global IDP Project, Profile of Internal Displacement: Uganda. Updated February 2005. Available online.

Human Rights Watch, "Abducted and Abused: Renewed Conflict in Northern Uganda," Vol. 15, No. 12 (A), July 2003. Available online.

International Crisis Group, "Northern Uganda: Understanding and Solving the Conflict." IGC Africa Report No. 77, April 2004. Available online.

Zachary Lomo and Lucy Hovil, Refugee Law Project (Makerere University, Kampala), "Behind the Violence: Causes, Consequences and the Search for Solutions to the Conflict in Northern Uganda." Refugee Law Project Working Paper No. 11, February 2004. Available online.

Erin Patrick, "'Unlike any other, it is a war on children': Victims of the Conflict in Northern Uganda." Migration Policy Institute Hot Spot, August 2004.

Women's Commission on Refugee Women and Children, "No Safe Place to Call Home: Children and Adolescent Night Commuters in Northern Uganda." July 2004. Available online.

World Vision, "Pawns of Politics: Children, Conflict and Peace in Northern Uganda." 2004. Available online.