War in Northern Uganda

01:31 Nov 8 2011 Kitgum, Uganda

Lily Awor was had dreams of going to school, getting a job thereafter and then getting married to a loving man.

Unfortunately, the 39 – year – old’s dreams were shattered when she was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and an old man – her father’s age – forced on her as her husband. The man raped her, destroying her reproductive system.

In 1988, at just age 15, Awor was on her way from school to her village in Koch – Goma, Nwoya district when the LRA rebels struck and abducted her.

“We walked for several hours towards Sudan. I was carrying a load and by the time we took a break, I was very exhausted and my feet were swollen,” Awor tearfully recalls.
While resting, the Ugandan Army ambushed the group, killing many. Awor was shot in both knees. With no medication she was treated by the LRA medicine men. She recovered after a year and another LRA fighter was imposed on her as her husband.
Multiple rapes at tender age of 15

While fleeing from the army, Awor’s new ‘husband’ raped her several times and in 1990, she got pregnant. When birth pains struck, Awor’s pelvis was so small that it was stretched and torn. She bled profusely, suffered excessive pain and infection.
Because of the suffering Awor was facing at that time, abduction, rape and giving birth amidst famine, where the hunger forced LRA fighters to feed on human flesh, she named her child Oketch, which means that someone born in great suffering and misery.

In 1993, Awor’s husband, fearing for his wife and children’s lives, given the gun battles, hunger and disease, he took them to his mother’s home at Padibe – Kitgum district. Life was tough; she staggered and could neither stand properly nor walk long distances. So her mother – in – law gave her local herbs and she gradually started walking upright. She took advantage of this and fled returning to her ancestral home of Okwalamra village Ogur sub-county in Lira district.

Isolation and shame worsened her health woes
Back at home, Awor faced another hurdle, shame and isolation.

“The community did not welcome me. Many accused me of killing them and calling my child a rebel that is not supposed to be there,” Awor says.

This stigma worsened the state of her reproductive system. “A lot of stress forced the pelvis to tear further, says a psychiatric nursing officer and in charge mental house at Ogur Health Centre IV in Lira district, Luciano Omacho.

“Eventually – Awor could not have sex normally with her new husband yet she has to fulfill her marital duties. To please her husband, she endured very painful sex and had seven kids,” he adds.

Awor often visited Ogur health facility, but she would only be given pain killers because the health facility had neither the doctors nor the treatment to help this mother.

Hope comes through community initiatives
A hardworking lady, who serves as a member of the Ogur sub-county village health team – charged with mobilising the community about health issues, Awor eventually joined the Women Peace Initiative in Uganda in 2004 – a local charity founded by 23 Lira women in 2003 to teach the women in northern Uganda about their reproductive health rights and prevent gender-based violence.

The charity is also charged with helping women, who have been sexually and physically abused to access treatment and also engage in community-based income generating activities to earn a living.
The charity’s coordinator, Catherine Awor, said during one of their outreaches, Awor opened up revealing how she was raped by LRA rebels and urgently needed treatment.
“She visited several health centres and they had diagnosed the pain in her pelvis caused by the rape and early pregnancy. We counseled her, but could not offer treatment at that time,” she said.

However, recently, Isis Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange, an African charity that focuses on women peace and security issues, visited Lira district and heard the plight of the abused women in northern Uganda. They held a medical camp for women survivors of physical and sexual violence.

Armed with three gynaecologists, the team examined women that were sexually and physically abused during and after LRA conflict , but had not received treatment and continue to suffer.

Women suffer lots of long term injuries in their private parts caused by sexual abuse
Dr. Charles Tom Otim, a senior consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist based at Mbale Hospital, the leader of the team said they found that many of the women are suffering pelvic inflammatory diseases caused by rape and prolonged labour, women who have a problem of relaxation of the genitalia or birth canal is coming out caused by rape and genital fistula.

Awor was among the over 500 women who received treatment at the camp. Dr. Otim who examined Awor and found that she has suffered a pelvic injury caused by prolonged labour and rape.

“This caused pelvic inflammatory diseases – a chronic pelvic pain that she has had since 1990. This pain prevents couples from having sex due to pain and it is a major cause of violence in homes,” added Dr. Otim.
Dr. Otim also learnt that Awor had suffered physical abuse from her husband because whenever she tried to deny the husband sex due to the pain, the husband would either engage in sex forcefully or physically fight her. Awor confessed that they often fought with her husband when she said No to sex.

Any treatment means a lot to women sexually and physically abused

To keep her man and also avoid the physical and sexual pressures he inflicts on her when she declines – Awor is pregnant and she said she is still suffering pain.
After the examination – Dr. Otim gave Awor some drugs, but also recommended she gets minor surgery on her pelvis. The surgery will be done at Lira Hospital – courtesy of Isis Women’s International Cross Cultural exchange – that will be footing the bills of treatment.

A groundnut and sorghum and millet farmer – Awor and her husband could not afford the sh500, 000 demanded by so many health facilities to perform the surgery. They have less than a quarter acre of land and they have even failed to educate their eldest son beyond Senior Four – he has now dropped out.

Gender based violence widespread

Gender based violence that comprises sexual and physical violence is widespread in Uganda. However – sexually gender based violence is widespread in northern Uganda due to the two decade conflict.

According to the 2006 Uganda Demographic and Heath Survey, 59% of Ugandan women aged 15 – 49 have experienced physical and sexual violence in their life time. The 2009 police crime report also says about 1,536 women were raped countrywide.
A 2009 GBV study by Washington DC International Centre for Research on Women, also says of 74% of Ugandan women who reported sexual violence, 10% of the 1,193 incidents resulted into multiple injuries such as deep cuts, gashes, sprains and dislocations, eye injuries, broken bones and burns.

A 2010 cross-sectional study on sexual violence and medical and psychological consequences in Kitgum district, northern Uganda by BioMedical Central – an International health and Human rights charity – found out that out of 573 women interviewed – at least 28.6% reported suffering at least one form of war related sexual abuse. It further said at least 72.4% of them reported at least one gynecological complaint and at least 75.6% of them reported surgical complaint and 69.4% psychological distress.

48-year-old Esther Abeja of Center Ajai – Angolicom parish – Aweng – sub-county in Lira district’s past is marked by incredible hardship, horrific violence, social isolation, and near death destruction.

Happily married – and a mother to over five children – Abeja was taken into captivity by the LRA rebels. “I was repeatedly raped by several LRA fighters and when I got a chance and tried to escape, I was arrested and the rebels used sticks and an army knife to prick into my vagina,” Abeja said tearfully.

Abeja’s private parts were destroyed beyond repair and she has been in and out of the hospital but with no success – until Isis Women’s International cross Cultural Exchange visited her village and when they sensitized the people about what they were to do, Abeja walked to the facilitators quietly and revealed – for the first time – the horror and terror she went through at the hands of the fighters of dreaded LRA.
Abeja has been given treatment and she will undergo – surgery courtesy of Isis Women’s International cross Cultural Exchange that will be funding her surgery and that of hundreds of other women in Lira.

Helen Kezie – Nwoha – the programme manager of Isis Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange explained that during the war, so many women were raped in northern Uganda and suffered multiple injuries that continue to haunt then. Now that the war is over – little attention is focused on them.

“We work on cases that government may neglect. The war is over and there is some peace but for us we believe that unless we address the reproductive issues of women there cannot be peace. This is what post conflict means to women – women were raped during the war and they suffered trauma,” she said.

Kezie – Nwoha said that they plan to organize such clinics often for the women in war affected areas to bring about healing – through counseling, and treatment of victims of sexual abuse to bring about hope.

She further said that despite the fact that war is over – many women are still sexually and physically abused by their husbands, strangers in the community. Nwoha added that they have come to learn the war changed the social fabric of society, causing men to drink excessively and also brought poverty.

She said that as men fail to meet the needs of their families – families are breaking up due to poverty. This has exacerbated gender based violence because men are selling off household property to survive.
“When the woman tries to speak against selling household property, they are beaten,” adds Nwoha.

Dr. Otim says gender violence continues because Implementation of laws is weak. A 2009 police crime report says of 4,433 suspects arrested and taken to court over defilement, only 467 were convicted.

- By Frederick Womakuyu (WOUGNET)
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