Young teenagers, dressed in uniform, prepare for a day of school in Northern Uganda, keen and full of hope for a lifetime ahead. But those dreams came abruptly to an end when members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abducted them while they were riding to school, sitting in class, or going about daily chores like gathering water or helping in the fields. The LRA kept such girls in captivity for years, forced them into marriage and sexual slavery, and submitted them to many other forms of mental, emotional, and physical torment.
Now, over 15 years since the end of the LRA war, how did those once young schoolgirls fare after returning from captivity? The Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation works with survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and supports local networks of survivors headquartered in Gulu, Northern Uganda. Recently, the Mukwege Foundation spoke to members of these survivor networks and heard their stories of how their suffering affects not just themselves, but their communities and future generations.
Survivors, many now over thirty, told us they still struggle to overcome the blunt mental suffering of psychological trauma, living still daily with the discomfort and shame of gynecological injuries, and persistently feeling the impacts of bullets that remain in their bodies. They have received no public recognition by the government as victims, and reparative action has been pervasively absent. Despite this, these women have found the fortitude, courage, and creativity to survive and speak out about their suffering.
The survivors who managed to escape and returned home after several years of captivity did not hear songs of rejoice, but the cold sound of their families and communities shutting a door on them forever for becoming mothers of the insurgents’ children. Rebuked from their communities, survivors of the LRA abduction often raised their children alone and in poverty.
Many robbed of an education themselves, they shared with us that they are afraid today a similar fate is stealing away at the future of their children, as they cannot afford 50 Euros annually for their high-school enrolment. They recount witnessing their adolescent male children living with a purposelessness that pushes them toward the downward spin of criminality, and their daughters, often uneducated and vulnerable, falling into bad relationships. The results are teenage pregnancy, early marriage, more children born in vulnerable circumstances, and/or HIV.
In addition, Ugandan survivors feel their physical and economic security constantly teeter on the verge of collapse. When their children become young parents, the survivors themselves become grandmothers and often must take on the burden of raising young children once again. Under these roofs, family turmoil is not uncommon as frustrated children blame their mothers for their lot in life, and over-heated arguments sometimes lead to threats and violence.
“Sexual violence in conflict both produces enormous suffering and, at the same time, creates other consequences: massive population displacement, demographic reduction, destruction of the social fabric, and destruction of the economic capacities of the affected communities.” said Dr Denis Mukwege, Congolese gynaecologist and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, as he addressed the world leaders of the G7 last week. Over the course of his career treating survivors of sexual violence, some as young as 4 years old, Dr Mukwege has seen this suffering first-hand. But the damage does not stop there.
The conclusion is clear: when sexual violence is committed in conflict, it marks the beginning of thousands of days of physical and psychological suffering, as well as social and economic exclusion that can last generations. These never-ending cycles of exclusion born from the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, cost the world dearly in human potential, shared prosperity, and peace and security.
Six years ago today, on the first International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, Dr Mukwege released a statement celebrating its establishment and calling for “a clear and unambiguous commitment for the international community to establish a RED LINE against the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war. And no longer allow it to be transgressed with impunity and indifference.” Yet there is still no action. And again this year at the G7, Dr Mukwege called again on world leaders to act, stating, “the scourge of sexual violence – which is a true pandemic – still lacks the international condemnation and action it deserves… while landmines and chemical weapons, for example, have been banned by international conventions because of their humanitarian consequences, no such treaty exists to date for conflict-related sexual violence.”
Across the world, from Tigray to Colombia to Kosovo to Myanmar, survivors must not be made to suffer one day longer. Today, on now the Seventh International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, we persist in our demand: a RED LINE must be firmly drawn against the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
The Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation calls on all nations to draw a RED LINE and create a legally binding international instrument to