“Women, in short, lack essential support for leading lives that are fully human. This lack of support is
frequently caused by their being women.”
– Martha Nussbaum
Across the globe, mothers face difficulties in relation to their experiences of motherhood and well-being. Many of these are recognizable across countries and cultures.
Becoming and being a mother in the context of a conflict lasting over two decades, however, is different. For these women, their highly dangerous situation means daily care of her children becomes a matter of life and death. This was, and arguably still is, the case for many of the women in northern Uganda.
Before I went to volunteer in a women’s counselling centre in Uganda in 2018, I had prepared myself appropriately. Or so I thought. I watched documentaries on the government’s conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army. I read loads of newspaper interviews, academic articles and NGO reports, and I spoke with professionals in the field.
All of my preparation, however, still came nowhere near to a full picture of what womanhood, and particularly motherhood, during and after war looks like.
Becoming a Mother in a Conflict Zone
During times of war, stories of motherhood – and female experience in general – have been excluded and unexplored. It is time this silence, often resulting from gender blindness, is broken.
To understand maternal well-being in a post-war context, we must realize what women had to deal with specific to their role as a mother.
The following story was told to me by Achola*. Achola is a 54 year old widow, with 8 children. I visited her home in rural Ngetta, close to the city of Lira in the northern part of Uganda. This region has been badly affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency, which had great consequences for all, and especially for pregnant women and mothers.
Pregnancy can be a challenging time for women anywhere in the world, and especially for women in impoverished regions.
The challenges Achola faced just became bigger and bigger after giving birth. Only two days post-birth, she had to run to a nearby mountain to find safety from the rebels. Her husband ran in a different direction and so she sat alone with their new-born baby.
“We were sleeping in the hut when the rebels came in 2002. I had a baby child and heard a gunshot. I came out and ran into the bush. The child was only two days old. We were hiding at a swamp and throughout it all the body was shaking.”
With no clean toilets, nothing to withhold the bleeding, no painkillers, no food, no emotional support, fear overtook Achola. At this point, she thought about killing her new-born baby.
“I felt like killing the baby I have so that I am left alone. Because I felt I was going to die, the rebel was going to kill me. There were no merits, that was just the sadness showing. I was full of sadness, and the feeling came from fear. Fear was the one thing making me think that … It was so painful, it was so painful in my heart.”
Like all the other families in the area, Achola had to run away from home every few nights for months in a row.
Hiding in the bush, however, came with great dangers and consequences – 5 tombs next to Achola’s hut are a painful and visual reminder of this.
“Those are the bodies of the children … I cannot recall when those children died. I gave birth to thirteen children, now there are eight … they could not even sit, they could not even crawl.
It happened as a result of running to the bush with these children, the mosquitos bit us in the bush and gave them malaria, then that child dies later on like that.”
Achola’s Way Forward
Achola suffered tremendous losses during the war. She tells me that she “cried and cried and cried for many years.” Today, however, she says: “I am feeling better and better slowly, it is not like in the past. I can laugh.”
The community counselling centre, run by Ugandan psychologist and trauma specialist Sister Florence, has helped a lot: “I am now recovering from these problems and this pain … I am now getting energy and feeling better.”
Reconnecting with her body has helped Achola in overcoming some of her struggles. Besides the counselling centre, the church is a major source of social support for her. The word of God, according to Achola, is a form of counselling: “I am always counselled from there [church] by the word of God. When I’m in problem and I hear the word of God I always feel better.”
By sharing this story and trying to understand the complexity of post-conflict issues, we can move on from merely reading narratives of pain and loss.
Instead, we can focus on what helps women live more fulfilling lives after conflict – and how we can support them in their journey.
*Achola is a pseudonym. The image accompanying this article does not depict the woman who told this story.