War and conflict are soaring around the globe. Today, around two billion people are affected by fragile political systems, conflict or violence. In the past few years there has been an increase in attention for war-time sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war. In general, however, women’s narratives of war continue to be under-explored.
We need female voices to inform our policies and work in the field of post-conflict recovery. Without them, we cannot truly work bottom-up and community-based, as we should in order to make sustainable changes.
What would it be like to become a mother in war? When you and your children’s survival are a matter of life and death? That was one of my main questions whilst I volunteered as a psychomotor therapist in a community counselling center in Ngeta, northern-Uganda. Barbara* talked to me about her experience of being captured by rebels whilst she was 9 months pregnant. She shared how this continues to affect her wellbeing and her role as a mother today.
9 Months Pregnant and Captured
One day Barbara fell asleep whilst hiding behind a bush and she was found by the rebels. When she could not fulfil their demands of carrying a heavy sack of sugar or a bicycle, Barbara stood up to the rebels and was badly physically abused.
‘When they beat me they kick me from the sides and the ribs. I fell down on the stomach, where my baby was. I slept there unconscious. My senses were gone, I knew I was dead. I was hopeless … After some days people came and killed somebody near me but they did not see me.’
Barbara survived, and so did her baby – who was born healthily. Her being captured, however, did affect Barbara in many ways. She still has to go to the hospital every few months to have her body checked, as her intestines were badly damaged. It has left her in a lot of physical pain in general, but especially in her stomach. The pain prevents her from doing intense work such as digging or fetching water. The beatings by the rebels put her in a financially disadvantaged position as she loses income in a dual manner. Firstly, by not being able to do rigorous work on the land. Secondly, by having to utilize what little money her husband is able to collect to take her to check-ups in the hospital.
Nurturing Children in a Conflict Zone
She had terrible pain carrying her second and third child during her pregnancies. All as a result from her being beaten. Bringing up her children, feeding them and keeping them safe, was an enormous challenge. Over and over again, she had to carry her children and run into the bush to flee from the rebels. When it rained, there was a high risk for malaria.
‘How to care for the children was difficult, carrying them whilst running into the bush was difficult. You could just fell down like that. If your child is crying people would just isolate you’
Though the war ended more than ten years ago, Barbara continues to live in physical and emotional pain, together with negative financial consequences. Barbara still does not have the money to pay the school fees for all her children. On top of this all some neighbors financially exploit and emotionally abuse her.
Stories like hers show how the long lasting effects of war-time violence still determine Barbara’s life. Post-war violence, including the violence that results from the unequal social structures characterized by poverty, is rampant. The distinction, however, between war-time violence and post-war violence is an artificial one. The suffering that both cause easily blend together.
Barbara’s Way Forward
Barbara is one of the few women I met that married her husband out of love. With almost half of women in Uganda (49%) believing a husband to be justified in hitting or beating his wife Barbara is in an exceptionally safe relationship. She says: ‘our ideas marry one another and it just makes me very happy’. Besides the loving relationships with her family, Barbara is part of wider social support system through both the counselling center and the church. The counselling and social connections have greatly helped her in her journey towards healing.
As Bessel van der Kolk reminds us, the importance of restoring relationships and community in restoring well-being cannot be overestimated. Organizations intervening in post-conflict recovery can learn from the community-based manner in which Barbara learned to cope with her past. Agency, resilience and empowerment can characterize not just individuals, but also communities as a whole.
*Her name has been changed to protect her identity.