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.

Motherhood in Conflict: Colleen’s Story

In northern Uganda, many mothers have lived through armed conflict. Some gave birth in a time when murder, abduction, mutilation and rape were common practices. It was a time when child soldiers were forced to kill loved ones. What would it be like to become and be a mother in this context?

Colleen* is one of the women I grew very close to during my time volunteering in a counselling centre in Northern Uganda. Like Achola, she told me about her experiences of motherhood during and after the war.

Becoming a Mother in a Conflict Zone

I visited Colleen at her home in rural Ngetta, close to the city of Lira in the northern part of Uganda. The region has been badly affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency. There were great consequences for all, and especially for pregnant women and mothers.

Colleen told me that she was abducted by rebels from the LRA when she was only 15. She escaped them by hiding in the open stem of a bush. Colleen told me that she became a mother at the same time as losing both of her parents, who were killed by the rebels. She spoke about how hard it was to flee from the rebels night after night, while ensuring the safety of her siblings and her baby.

Colleen’s experiences of the war have been debilitating, and she is still recovering. Though the war ended more than a decade ago, Colleen continues to be in emotional and physical pain. She tells me:

“When I was with my baby hiding in the bush, somebody stepped on my waist. It affected my waist so much up to date. Whenever I laugh, I could just fall unconscious for some minutes. It is still painful.”

What is very striking about Colleen’s story is that it demonstrates that life after war can still be filled with terror. For Colleen, the days of violence are not over.

‘Post-Conflict’ Motherhood

Just after Colleen had been abducted by the rebels, she was married at 16 to her current husband. The day I spoke with her, he was out working on nearby land. Colleen leaned towards me and whispered in my ear:

“I never wanted to marry him, my brothers forced me to marry him cause they needed money and animals [bride price] so that they can marry their wives.”

The practice of bride price is one of many practices that highlight the negative effects of poverty and patriarchy on women’s wellbeing.

The women I worked with told me that in their communities, girls are usually seen as a commodity by both their natal family and their new husband. As soon as a girl is born, she is a source of income for her family. This puts girls and young women at great risk of being forced into early or childhood marriage. This is exactly what happened to Colleen.

Colleen is now in an unhappy and abusive marriage. The years of grabbing her children and running into the bush have not been forgotten. These days, however, when she runs with her children it is not to escape the rebels, but the violence of her husband.

For Colleen, instead of a safe place, her home is a place of terror.

The end of the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army was supposedly meant to be time of peace. For many women, however, peace-time violence continues to disrupt and negatively influence their well-being.

Colleen’s Way Forward

Though Colleen’s daily life is characterized by the violent relationship with her husband, it does not define her. Colleen experiences a lot of joy in the relationship with her children, and with her female friends who she meets in her neighbourhood and in the local counselling centre. The women often sing and dance together:

“During the rebel time there was no music, now there is music and we can dance and feel better. I dance! … I always dance and listen [to music] because it is telling me about peace, if it is gospel it is counselling me also. There are songs which you listen to and it teaches you about peace.”

Community groups, the church, gospel songs and the local counselling centre are all crucial for Colleen’s recovery. We need to acknowledge the importance of creativity and body work in psycho-social and mental health support. For Colleen, dancing and singing is not only simply enjoyable, it also offers a way of healing.  

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

Motherhood in Conflict: Achola’s Story

“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.

State of the World’s Mothers – Motherhood in Humanitarian Crises

5929749181_754b19eb3e_z
Image: Save the Children

The 15th annual Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers report (#SOWM) was launched yesterday. As a first-time mother-to-be myself, I am now reading this report with a new perspective – and while my firstborn child is not due to arrive until October, I am already beginning to understand the challenges, difficulties and struggles faced by millions of mothers around the world every day in a whole new way.

SOWC2014
SOWM 2014

This year, SOWM focuses on Saving Mothers and Children in Humanitarian Crises. Motherhood is challenging for all women – but for millions of women living under emergency and conflict situations, being a mother and caring for your own health and the health and well-being of your children, is challenging in ways most of us cannot even begin to comprehend. Over half of preventable maternal and child deaths take place in fragile settings, and since the launch of the Mother’s Index in 2000, most of the countries that have ranked in the bottom 10 are countries that currently are, or have recently emerged, from fragile and conflict situations.

Conflict and disaster, whether natural or man-made, rip families from their roots and force them apart. Often incurring in countries with already limited or uneven access to basic services like health care or water and sanitation, conflict situations prevent women from obtaining basic services and support for themselves and their families – placing both mothers and children under constant risk and danger. As outlined in the Report, mothers and children in conflict and emergency situations live under the threat of violence, illness, malnutrition, lack of life-saving medication and healthcare services, hunger, and young women and girls often face a high risk of becoming child brides. Girls who become pregnant before age 15 have an increased risk of experiencing complications during pregnancy and childbirth, and children born to teenage mothers have a higher risk of being premature and having low birth weight, among other complications. In developing countries, millions of women and girls lack access to family planning services and contraceptives – and in emergency and conflict situations, such services are almost never available or accessible.

SHARE_CARDThe State of the World’s Mothers report illustrates the struggles and dangers faced by mothers around the world through four case studies, highlighting situations in The Philippines, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and the United States.The last part of the report, “Take Action for Mothers and Children”, outlines concrete suggestions and recommendations on what needs to be done globally for mothers and children in conflict to ensure that their lives and wellbeing are protected. While many of these actions need to take place at the level of policy making, legislation, infrastructure improvements and financial commitment from governments and other stakeholders, everyone can do their part to advocate for women’s and children’s right to a safe, conflict-free and healthy life.

  • You can join the conversation online to inform others about the challenges faced by millions of women and girls;
  • you can reach out to your local politicians and decision makers to demand that adequate investments are made in your community for protecting women’s and children’s right to a safe and healthy life;
  • you can raise awareness about these issues in your own community, volunteer in a shelter, donate your time, money or other resources you may have available.
  • You can take the pledge to support efforts to ensure every mother and child living in crisis has access to high quality health care, nutritious food, safe shelter and protection from harm.

And – if you are a parent, whether a mother or a father, you can pick up your children and hold them very tight and close, and be thankful for being able to do so. You can raise your children to value the life they have, and the opportunities they have been given. I know I am one of the lucky ones – having the chance to experience a happy and healthy pregnancy, and getting to bring my child into this world in a safe place. Every single mother deserves that chance too – and we can all pitch in to turn that into a reality.

Featured image courtesy of Save the Children USA.