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.

White Privilege & Sexual Abuse in Uganda

I remember Bery Glaser as a corpulent and friendly old man. With grey hair, bright eyes and a smile, he was born in Belgium and holder of a German passport. He had a protuberance on his face, revealing some sort of sickness, which made me feel sympathetic towards him. Bery said he was a retired health professional and seemed confident and knowledgable. He spoke with both pride and condescension about his work in Uganda protecting young girls from sexual abuse and disease.

At first, I thought Bery was the utter personification of white saviour syndrome. Little did I know, when I sat down with him for tea and biscuits, that he was a sexual offender.

My Trip to Kalangala, Ssese Islands

In 2018, while working in Uganda, I needed a break from chaotic Kampala. I decided to go to the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria for a stress-free weekend. The lodge I stayed at arranged a local guide to show me around. He was a police officer but drove tourists around, in his free time, to make extra cash. Because of his position and network, he told me, everyone in the island knew him well and it was easier to reach hidden spots.

After a day visiting amazing beaches and tropical forests, we stopped for tea at Bery’s Place & Ssese Humanitarian Services. It was a gorgeous place on a hill with views over Lake Victoria. A muzungu (white or foreign person) – Mr Bery Glaser – had founded the place in 2006 and it served as a shelter for young girls who were survivors of sexual abuse. Mr Glaser and his wife housed the girls, provided them with food, paid their school fees and took care of their health.

Bery welcomed me and saluted my guide enthusiastically. He then invited me in. I saw a number of girls aged between 5 and 15 years old around the house and the patio. Some were doing house chores or playing but mostly, they were being curious about my presence. Bery and I sat on the verandah for tea and biscuits that were served to us by a very young girl. Then, he told me his story and the story of the girls he sheltered at Bery’s Place & Ssese Humanitarian Services.

The Girls at Bery’s Place

Bery was brutally graphic in describing the accounts of sexual abuse “his” girls had endured before arriving to the shelter. I felt my arm hair raising almost in pain as he explicitly described rape scenes and the damage girls suffered in their genital area. It made me tremendously uncomfortable. I asked him to tone down his words. He argued that precise detail was important to fully understand to severity of the issue. He also emphasised on the prevalence of AIDS in the island and how unprotected these girls were. When I asked about the girls’ parents, he replied that they didn’t care about them.

Thinking back, there was something disturbingly odd about the whole situation. I remember my goosebumps and how uneasy I felt. I guess I unintentionally refused to think poorly of this old, sick man.

He showed me the facilities in and around the house – the shared living room and the girls’ bedrooms arranged in bunkbeds. Bery introduced me to some of the girls, with whom I talked briefly. They were shy. But, from my experience, many are when talking to muzungus. After this, I made a small donation and said goodbye.

After I left, I remember feeling very distressed by the stories I had heard. I also remember appreciating that someone was caring for those girls. I hadn’t understood why the guide had taken me there, but assumed he would get a share from the donation. For a split-second, however, a horrendous thought crossed my mind and I immediately felt tremendously guilty. I thought about that visit for days with a bittersweet feeling. It looked like a pleasant place, but something was off.

German National Accused of Sexual Abuse

Fast forward 6 months and I read in the newspaper about a foreign sexual offender in Kalangala. My heart froze. Before even reading his name, I knew it was him. Mr. Bery Glaser was accused of sexual abuse and child trafficking. I called one of my contacts in Uganda, who confirmed the news. A number of local organisations and a very few journalists had been following Bery’s case for years. Locals on the island knew about the shelter and what was happening to those girls. The police officer who worked as a tourist guide knew. Politicians knew. Everyone knew. 

The accusations started in 2013 when a few girls came forward. They reported sexual touching under the guise of medical vaginal examinations using fingers and other objects. Bery coerced the girls into sleeping with him in exchange for housing, food and school fees. Mr. Glaser was arrested then but, to the outrage of social workers and the journalists following the case, he was acquitted by the court. Bery’s Place was again open for business.

Arrested 6 Years Later

Long story short, after years of reports and denunciations from several victims and witnesses, the old man I had tea and biscuits with was arrested in February 2019. He was charged with “19 counts of human trafficking, seven counts of aggravated defilement, one count of indecent assault and one count of operating an unauthorized children’s home.”

According to the local newspaper New Vision, police found sex tapes, sex tools and erotic material in the bedrooms of the shelter. In addition, a spokesperson for Uganda Police told CNN that the girls had contraceptive implants inserted. A survivor testified that the girls had to sleep with Bery on a rota basis. This included sexual massages to ‘help cure his cancer’ and other types of abuse that he told them were “normal in his culture”.

Mr Glaser used his power and network in the island to bribe police and threaten whoever spoke out. I remembered my guide/police officer. A year after his detention, Bery’s trial has been postponed 8 times as requested by his legal team. He denies all allegations.

Dangerous Power Dynamics

Ever since finding out about the accusations against Glaser, I’ve been following the case closely. I can’t help but remember every single detail of my visit back in 2018 – our conversation about sexual abuse and how uncomfortable he made me feel. Why didn’t I realise? How could I have missed the red flags? Did I purposely ignore my gut feelings because he was an old white man? Did I also succumb to white privilege?

It is dangerously easy for white men to sexually abuse girls in the Global South. And to do so with complete immunity.

Bery Glaser had been running a children’s home illegally without a registration certificate. But white people’s good will is always assumed. Could a local man or woman have done that? Absolutely not. But Bery did it for over 10 years. He used his position of power and taken-for-granted morality to coerce and abuse dozens of vulnerable Ugandan girls, under the supervision of locals and officials.

We need to put a stop to the power dynamics that perpetuate men’s ownership of women’s bodies and allows whiteness to get away with injustice. We need to make a collective effort. Starting with me.

Not Just a Woman’s Issue: Men in Uganda Tackle Violence

In Uganda, gender-based violence is largely considered a private matter and stigma prevents many victims from reporting. As a result, data are difficult to gather. However, we know that millions of girls and young women face violence across the country and around the world.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign gives Uganda the chance to evaluate our efforts towards ending all forms of gender-based violence. These efforts must consist of unique interventions and strategies to position men and women as equals in society.

In 2018, Peer to Peer Uganda wrote about the importance of empowering male champions for gender equality. This year, we are asking two questions. First, what challenges remain in 2019? And second, how are men and boys contributing to the fight against gender-based violence in Uganda?

We believe that men must be oriented regularly to outgrow the social norms that leave women on the periphery of social benefits and opportunities. But as well as social values, discriminatory laws and policies continue to prevent progress.

Ineffective laws pose a major challenge in the fight against gender-based violence.

Many of Uganda’s laws do not address key aspects of violence against women. None criminalise marital rape, for instance. The 2010 Domestic Violence Act does not protect those in cohabiting partnerships. A 2004 amendment to the Land Act of 1998 fails to recognise coownership of land between spouses.

The Land Act also fails to permit women to act as coowners or managers of land, and creates weak protections for widows who seek to inherit their husband’s land. Another example is the 2006 Employment Act. This legislation restricts punitive action against an employer in workplace sexual harassment cases. It doesn’t even acknowledge the potential for abuse by coworkers.

Poor funding for violence against women and girls programmes also remains a huge challenge.

The budgets of sectors mandated to address GBV are worrying. While activities are listed in the budgets, there are no monetary allocations. Most of the work on gender-based violence in Uganda is donor funded and concentrated in project areas. Greater efforts to identify domestic funding sources are urgently required.

Rates of gender-based violence continue to increase despite the presence of laws and policies to protect victims and survivors.

For me, the situation became impossible to ignore the day I saw a man attack his wife when she delayed to serve him dinner.

That very day, I decided to start an Annual Youth Mentorship Program through Peer To Peer Uganda. The program targets boys and girls 14 – 25 years of age. Now in its second year of implementation, it has facilitated mentorship training to over 176 young women and men from across Uganda – targeting both rural and urban communities. Young people are supported to provide psychosocial and moral support and assistance to survivors of violence.

We have also created a network of male volunteers. These men and boys raise awareness of the need to end violence and act as role models in their communities.

“As a male champion, I have learnt how to intervene and support my female peers by not feeling threatened by their ambitions but instead feeling inspired to forge a partnership with them.” – Peer to Peer Youth Mentorship Residential Camp mentee

There are also collaborative awareness-raising sessions for male and female peer mentees. These sessions, along with community outreach, have played a significant role in contributing to the realization of a gender equal, violence-free country.

The App Empowering Young Women in Uganda

In Uganda, young women and girls face many sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) challenges. For example, a high unmet need for contraception leads to dire consequences like unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

Challenges that limit provision of SRHR services to adolescents and young women include lack of privacy and confidentiality, knowledge gaps, cultural and social stigma, biased service providers, and inconvenience in accessing SRHR services despite their availability. Although there have been improvements in creating a youth-attractive environment for SRHR services and access to tools, more work is needed.

We are constantly reminded of the need to provide avenues where young people – including women and girls – can access sexual and reproductive health and rights services that are equitable, appropriate and effective.

At Reach A Hand Uganda, we help to address this need through our youth empowerment centres, and now, we have introduced the SAUTIplus app.

The SAUTIplus app is an innovative part of the SAUTIplus ecosystem,  helping to fill existing gaps in information. Uganda is experiencing a smartphone boom, with over half the population now owning one, and this number is increasing day by day.

Internet penetration in Uganda is at 41.6% – with 19 million Ugandans connected to the internet. In 2017, the Uganda Communications Commission recorded that the total number of mobile phone subscriptions was 23,529,979, up from 21,039,690 the previous quarter.

The SAUTIplus app was revamped two months ago to further engage Uganda’s high youth population and, at the time of writing, has 1,600 downloads on Google Play Store. The iOS version is in its final stages of going live.

On the app, information is available day or night. With a few taps of their phone, young women and girls can quickly find answers to their burning questions about sexual and reproductive health.

It’s the young people at Reach a Hand Uganda producing the content for the app and answering the questions – with support from the Programs and Communications departments. We understand the needs of the young women and girls and can craft our responses to reach the users in a relatable manner.

Users are able to see answers to questions other young people have asked and read tailor-made stories addressing issues faced by girls. Questions can be submitted on the website (hopefully soon to be added to the app) and the questions and answers can be viewed on either the app or website. The questions can be anonymous to maintain a safe and confidential space.

The app provides accurate information on SRHR, rather than simply promoting abstinence, which has proven an ineffective method of protecting young girls in Uganda.

The section named ‘Senga’ is a reference to a trusted relationship between a woman and her father’s sister (auntie). This relationship is commonly one where information regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights is passed on, but there can be a gap in appropriate or accurate information. This is where the SAUTIplus app comes in.

‘Senga’ provides an opportunity to view answers to questions you may have had yourself, smashing the common myths and misconceptions surrounding SRHR in Uganda. “My boyfriend says we don’t need contraception because he will pull out at the last minute. Is this a good idea?” is an example of one of the questions asked by a young girl on Senga.

The SAUTIplus app is providing a platform for women and girls to take charge of their sexual health. The knowledge the app provides is giving power to young women.

With power comes increased agency and the ability to negotiate within relationships – for example, with regards to contraceptive use to prevent pregnancy. No topic is taboo on the app. This includes menstruation and menstrual hygiene, a key SRHR challenge Reach a Hand have identified among young women in the country.

The for-the-youth attitude of the SAUTIplus app means it is an engaging platform for young people to access reliable information. Multimedia content, including photos, videos and blogs, provide a plethora of youth-friendly, easily digestible resources on SRHR.

The app is in continuous development, striving to meet the changing needs of young women in Uganda. It aims to create a positive relationship between young people and SRHR information, showing that information is a tool of power and not something to be dismissed. 

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.

4 Ways to Create Opportunities for the Next Generation

Celebrating International Women’s Day 2019 at the inaugural Girls Festival – organized by Reach A Hand Uganda (RAHU), Global Livingston Institute, Women Deliver and partners – got me in my feelings. 

 The Festival theme was ‘Gains from Equality’. It had me thinking about all the women who came before me and the opportunities they created for me to succeed in school, as well as in my personal and professional life. It reminded me of my mother’s stories of a time when the world refused to see girls and women as anything other than wives and mothers.

Creating opportunities for the next generation at the 2019 Girls Fest organised by Reach a Hand Uganda. 3 young women hold up a sign and smile.
2019 Girls Festival

Let us toast the movements that paved the way for women to do powerful things. 

We must honour the women who marched for us to vote, to get into the workforce and the political space. And not forgetting the women who made it possible for us to eat chicken and eggs. Yes, shocking I know, but there are several tribes in Uganda where not too long ago women were forbidden from eating chicken or eggs.

Despite numerous obstacles, the contributions of women in the past have eased the path for girls and women today.

We owe it to ourselves to create equal opportunities for the next generation of men and women. We owe our children true equality. I love lists, so here are 4 ways to create opportunities for the next generation of women and men.

1)     Reinvent Feminism

There are numerous misconceptions about what feminism is. Some people are reluctant to label themselves as feminist. I am often asked if I am a feminist. It scares me to respond to this question, because I may be viewed as a ‘bitter man hater’.

We should remind girls and women that feminism is not a bad word. Girls and women should know that feminism is about having choices. Carly Fiorina, the first woman to head a fortune 500 company, described a feminist as a woman who lives the life she chooses. “A woman may choose to have 5 children and home school them, she may choose to be CEO or run for president.”

Let us rework feminism by getting more men involved. Feminism is for everyone. Working with men and boys is key to achieving equality. They should be encouraged to stand alongside women to support gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Men and boys need to abandon all toxic masculinity. Harmful stereotypes should be thrown out to embrace respectful, mutually beneficial and healthy relationships.

2)     Create Safe Spaces for Girls and Women

The Girls Festival was such a safe space for girls and women to receive sexual and reproductive health services. It was a space for girls to be girls. We need to create rooms full of role models for girls to aspire to be like. We need to create worlds where everyone can feel safe, accepted, loved, challenged and encouraged.

3)     Mentorship and Positive Role Models

My biggest struggle over the years has been to find a great female role model who is also a young adult. I look up to former Vice President Specioza Kazibwe, however, I wish I had a female young adult to look up to. I’d love to have someone like me who is doing powerful things. We need to introduce the next generation to remarkable role models who are powerhouses and forces to be reckoned with. I particularly loved how the Girls Festival 2019 introduced us to role models like self-taught makeup artist Monalisa Umutoni.

4)     Invest in Women

The inaugural Girls Festival was a satellite event leading up to the Women Deliver 2019 Conference in Vancouver. Women Deliver’s mantra is that investing in women creates a ripple effect that yields multiple benefits, not only for individual women, but also for families and communities. Investments in women and girls are not mere acts of charity. They should be looked at as investments that can generate high returns for humanity.

These are just 4 ways we can create opportunities for the next generation. I know it won’t be easy, but every little action matter. Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, famously said that the way to progress is neither swift nor easy.

Let us do whatever is in our power to pave the way for future generations to enjoy the gains from equality. I look forward to the opportunities we can create for the next generation.

Doreen Kihembo is a Communications Officer at Reach A Hand Uganda.