Motherhood in Conflict: Grace’s Story

Stories of motherhood and the female experience during war are often excluded and unexplored. This neglect shows in the little attention such stories get in the public discourse and in policy agendas. But without these stories, we miss the voices that are so important for development.

Many of the mothers I met while I worked in Uganda became a mother at a time when the conflict between Museveni’s government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was in full swing. They started their journey of motherhood when murder, abduction, mutilation and rape were common practices.

Motherhood in a IDP Camp

One of these women is Grace*. Now a 50-year old married woman and proud mother of 6 children, Grace was only in her twenties when she and her children, including a baby, fled to a camp for internally displaced persons. The intensifying activity of LRA rebels in her community made it impossible to stay home safely. Though the camp was run by the government, and was supposedly a place to seek refuge, she felt very unsafe:

‘There was no hope of life. I thought I was going to be killed at any time … You cannot lock the house, you come back [to the camp] and you find faeces in bags thrown in your house. There was a lack of food … and if you don’t follow time [related rules] the soldiers beat you.

When the war finally ended Grace and her family went back to their village. Sadly, though, life did not get much better for Grace.

‘Post-conflict’ Motherhood

Though the war has ended, it is inaccurate to speak about peace; the term ‘peace time’ wrongly implies a life free of violence and suffering. Even the term ‘post-conflict’ wrongly signifies a shift away from conflict and violence. To the contrary, many Ugandan women’s lives are characterized by ongoing experiences of violence.

Violence has to be understood in a very broad way and include the violence that results from social structures, such as poverty, patriarchy and ability. Grace is badly impacted by all of these.

The poverty in which she finds herself has determined many, if not all, of her life choices.

Because of it, she is withheld from seeking the specialist care she needs:

‘At times I get pain at my belly and at the side of my belly … When I dig for so long and even uprooting potatoes; I get the problem of the uterus. Up to now, [the] uterus always comes out. I was referred to look for a doctor who can help me but I had no money.’

The fact that Grace does not have enough money to go to the hospital is a result of several issues. Some of these are general, such as a drought. Specific for Grace however, is that she is limited in the amount of work she can do due to her displaced uterus and the resulting pain. Besides that, Grace is also the co-wife of an alcoholic husband:

‘I have a problem at home here, my husband is a drunkard. At this moment the marriage is not good, because I am the second wife to him … I am living with my children and he lives with the first wife. When I harvest crops which I could sell in order to support my family, he comes and sells it and uses the money on his first wife’

Grace’s story painfully shows the struggles that many women in Uganda face today. It highlights how suffering and psycho-social ill-being result not solely from experiences of war and poverty, but to a large degree from being a woman.

Grace Fights Back

Despite all that she faces, Grace is regarded as a role model and an example of a woman living a holy life. This is because Grace stands up against her husband’s violence.

Yesterday he wanted to fight me over the soy bean, but I am now stronger than him (laughing). I have a courageous life. If the man is fighting me, I just follow him with law, I call people.’

In times of marital conflict, Grace calls her brothers-in-law, and if that does not work, she steps to the clan chief.

Though her actions are far from all-encompassing solutions to her struggles, her courage is inspiring.

Due to her perseverance, Grace is understandably a role model in her community – she sparks hope for a different future for many Ugandan women.

*Grace is a pseudonym. The image accompanying this article does not depict the woman who told this story.

Why We Need Trauma-Sensitive Media & Journalism

I have read many news reports on war-time gender-based violence. As a therapist, I have often questioned the effects of journalists’ approaches on the women they work with. Sometimes, the story seems more important than the woman, her wounds and her healing.

For me, this raises questions – who does journalism benefit? Is it the woman who speaks up, the public, the news channels? And who has the responsibility to keep women who speak out safe?

It seems that media coverage of highly sensitive topics, such as war-time sexual violence, is not always about educating the public and empowering the speaker. Instead, it is about shock and entertainment.

The Al-Iraqiya news channel has received criticism for exactly this reason. They broadcasted an interview between a Yazidi woman and the ISIS fighter who had bought, captured and violently raped her multiple times a day.

In August 2014, ISIS set off to destroy Yazidi culture and religion. They did so through systematic killings, sexual slavery, torture and other atrocities in the Sinjar region in Northern Iraq. Thousands of girls and women have been captured and sold, leaving them in sexual enslavement of ISIS fighters. Girls would often be sold, or gifted, from one fighter to the other, undergoing extreme abuse and degradation at each of the fighters’ hands.

A great number of Yazidis are still missing. Others have found their way out and are living in refugee camps or trying to rebuild their life in a new country.

Ashwaq Haji Hamid, now 19, is one of the girls who managed to escape. She recently came face to face with her previous abuser during a TV interview set up by the Iraqi National Intelligence Service.

Ashwaq confronted him:

“You destroyed my life. You robbed me of all my dreams. I was once held by Isis, by you, but now you will feel the meaning of torment, torture, and loneliness. If you have any feelings, you would not have raped me when I was 14, the age of your son, the age of your daughter.”

After speaking these powerful words, while shaking and starting to cry, Ashwaq fainted at her former capturers’ feet. The video has been shared around the world, and has received mixed reactions. Critics stress the voyeuristic element, saying the interview was never about Ashwaq’s healing but about public entertainment.

Kurdish-German psychologist, Dr. Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, spoke out against the interview. He stated that the news channel:

“…cared about ratings of the show more than her … I know the survivor as my patient and it was medically an absolute contradiction to her severe trauma (to do the TV interview), as we saw with her fainting.”

The world needs to hear stories like Ashwaq’s. The Yazidi community have the right to be heard. Finding one’s voice can be a powerful and inspirational experience, with the potential to be healing and empowering.

Sensational journalism stands in stark contrast to how stories on gender-based violence should be told – in an empowering, trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive way.

We cannot prioritise entertainment over healing. The media cannot decide if and when it is in women’s interests to speak. Media outlets and journalists need to have a greater understanding of how their involvement can open deep wounds and re-traumatize those speaking out.

For this to happen, however, the conditions of stepping up and speaking out have to be set by the speakers themselves. This is what happened when winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Nadia Murad wrote about her experience with ISIS in her powerful book, ‘The Last Girl’.

The Last Girl offers an understanding of how life has changed for Yazidis since 2014. Most of all, the book inspires and insists on a call to action to achieve justice for the Yazidi community.

Media outlets working in a trauma-sensitive way must become the norm. Nadia Murad’s book is the perfect example of how telling a story and informing the public can go hand in hand with a process of empowerment and healing.