Uganda is a former British colony that lies across the equator in eastern Africa. It has a population of approximately 34 million people, the majority of whom are considered indigenous to the country.
These are the Bantu-speaking groups that comprise the Baganda in central Uganda, Banyoro and Batoro to the West, and Ankole and Kigezi peoples to the South West. Other Bantu-speaking groups include the Basoga, Bagisu and the Sebei towards the east. The second largest are the Nilo-Hamitic groups that dominate the north and north eastern regions, and include the west Nile groups of Madi, Alur and Lugbara; and the Acholi furthest north and their southerly neighbour the Langi. In the north east of the country are the Iteso and Karamojong (e.g. Maxon, 2009: 149; Apio, 2016: 62). The Langi and the Acholi speak slightly different dialects of the Luo language and observe comparably similar traditional norms, values and practices.
Since attaining self rule from the British in 1962, Uganda has seen several violent coups and civil wars, no peaceful change of government and a myriad of rebellions with great human and material costs to the civilian population. In the most recent conflict, the central protagonist was the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group, led by Joseph Kony – a mystic and Spirit Medium from Acholi. The LRA launched its war against the government of Uganda in 1986 and it lasted for two decades in northern Uganda. Its epicentre was Acholi and neighbouring communities from Lango (mainly the districts of Oyam, parts of Kole, Lira and Otuke district). Towards the end of the war in 2014, LRA activities spilled over to parts of Teso in the east and the west Nile.
More than a million people took refuge in squalid camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) but continued to face severe threats to life and property. Some IDP communities were massacred and destroyed (Apio, 2016). Conflicts in northern Uganda exposed civilians to a myriad of crimes, including murder, abduction, torture, forced displacement, forced recruitment, and destruction of property. The LRA relied heavily on the abduction of civilians to fill its rank and file. More than 60,000 boys and girls, men and women were abducted by the LRA and forced to become combatants, sex slaves, porters and cooks (Apio, 2007; Baines, 2014; Baines & Rosenoff, 2013; Carlson & Mazurana, 2008:16; Mazurana et al., 2002; McKay & Mazurana, 2004; Temmerman, 2009).
Various forms of sexual and gender-based violence – including rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage – were also committed in northern Uganda. These crimes targeted both men and women and were perpetrated by both state and non-state actors. The LRA used forced marriage as a strategy to reward its male fighters, sustain morale and nurture loyalty among its soldiers (Carlson & Mazurana, 2008). It also used force against abducted girls and women to replicate traditions of marriage and motherhood (Baines, 2013). Those who survived faced severe and complex trauma and stigma in their families and communities. Survivors suffered physical, psychological, social, cultural, economic and political consequences that continue to impede their integration and self-reliance today (Ladisch 2015). Many contracted Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and other sexually transmitted diseases (STD). Thousands of female survivors became pregnant and had children. Numerous studies report high prevalence rates of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), depression and failed reintegration among survivors (e.g. Akello. Et al., 2010; Carlson & Mazurana, 2008; Watye Ki Gen, 2013; Phuong et al, 2009:13).
In 2001, the United States of America included the LRA on its list of terrorist organizations. The African Union followed on 22 November 2011. However, the LRA was not the only group that committed rape and sexual violence against civilians. Others included soldiers of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) and its auxiliary forces, such as amuka (Lango) and arrow boys (Teso) militia, who raped girls, women and men with impunity during the LRA war.
Thousands of ex-combatants, many of who might have been complicit in sexual violence, have benefited from a blanket amnesty that the Ugandan government put in place in 2000. The Amnesty Act was last renewed in 2013 for a period of two years and targeted all combatants, except top commanders of the LRA (IRIN News 2013). Additional information on the Amnesty Act 2000 and its implementation can be found on the Ministry of Internal Affairs website.
On 16 December 2003, the government of Uganda referred the situation concerning the LRA to the International Criminal Court (ICC). On 8 July 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants against five top LRA commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Two of these commanders have since been confirmed dead, another is suspected to have died and the LRA leader, Joseph Kony, remains at large. A fifth indictee, Dominic Ongwen, surrendered to US forces in the Central African Republic in January 2015 and is facing 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes in northern Uganda, 19 of which relate to sexual and gender crimes, including forced marriage. Both the LRA and government forces are suspected of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, but cases have only been brought against LRA members.
In 2009, Uganda established the International Crimes Division (ICD) of the High Court of Uganda to investigate and prosecute international and transnational crimes, including crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, terrorism, piracy and human trafficking (Ladisch 2015). So far, the only case initiated by the ICD focuses on Thomas Kwoyelo, a former junior commander in the LRA (Human Rights Watch 2011). The case is ongoing. Visit the ICD website for more information.
In 2008, Uganda’s Justice, Law and Order Sector (JLOS) established the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) to develop a national policy and law on transitional justice for Uganda (JLOS n.d.). In 2013, the TJWG released the draft national policy on transitional justice, which deals with Uganda’s legacy of past violations and seeks to provide accountability and reconciliation through a myriad of justice mechanisms, including formal criminal prosecutions, traditional justice, truth-telling and reconciliation, reparation and amnesty. Presently, the country still awaits legislation on the draft policy.
Overall, the government of Uganda has not invested sufficiently in addressing issues of accountability, truth-seeking or acknowledgement of crimes committed during past conflicts. Survivors, particularly of conflict-related sexual violence, continue to face significant recrimination, resentment and stigmatization in some communities (Ladisch 2015).
Apio, E., 2007. ‘Uganda’s Forgotten Children of War’. In: R. C. Carpenter, ed. Born Of War: Protecting Children of Sexual Violence Survivors in Conflict Zones. Bloomfield: Kumarian Press, pp. 98-103.
Apio, E., 2016. Children Born of War: Kinship, Marriage, and the Politics of Post-Conflict Reintegration in Lango society. Thesis (PhD). University of Birmingham, UK.
Baines, E. & Rosenoff, L. G., 2014. ‘Motherhood and Social Repair after War and Displacement in Northern Uganda’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 27(2): 282-300.
Baines, E., 2014. ‘Forced Marriage as a Political Project: Sexual Rules and Relations in the LRA’, Journal of Peace Research, 51(3): 405-417.
Carlson. K., & Mazurana, D., 2008. Forced Marriage within the Lord’s Resistance Army, Uganda. Medford, MA: Feinstein International Center, Tufts University.
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Human Rights Watch, 2011. ‘Uganda: Q&A on the Trial of Thomas Kwoyelo'. [Accessed 11 November 2017].
IRIN News, 2013. ‘Rebel Amnesty Reinstated in Uganda’. [Accessed 11 November 2017].
Ladisch, V., 2015. From Rejection to Redress: Overcoming Legacies of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Northern Uganda. 27 October 2015. [Accessed 11 November 2017].
Maxon, R., 2009. East Africa: An Introductory History. 3rd ed. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
Mazurana, D., et al., 2002. ‘Girls in Fighting Forces and Groups: Their Recruitment, Participation, Demobilisation, and Reintegration’. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 8(2): 97-123.
McKay, S, and Mazurana, D., 2004. ‘Where are the Girls? Girls in Fighting Forces in Northern Uganda, Sierra Leone and Mozambique: Their Lives during and after War’. International Center for Human Rights and Democracy, v5 2/10/04. [Accessed 28 November 2013].
McKay, S., 2004. ‘Reconstructing Fragile Lives: Girls’ Social Reintegration in Northern Uganda and Sierra Leone. Gender and Development, 12(3): 19-30.
Temmerman, D. E., 2009. (2nd ed.). Aboke Girls: Children Abducted in northern Uganda. Kampala: Fountain.