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.

Here’s Why Scotland’s New Domestic Abuse Law Matters

On 1 April 2019, a new piece of legislation came into effect in Scotland. The Domestic Abuse Act makes several fundamental changes to how violence against women and children is defined and prosecuted within the Scottish criminal justice system.

The new law has been informed by survivor experience, making it not only progressive but potentially transformative. It strengthens the power of police and prosecutors to tackle our pervasive problem with domestic violence. It also legally acknowledges what many of us already know to be true – abuse comes in many forms, not all of which leave bruises on bodies.

Scotland’s Domestic Abuse Act changes how abuse is defined, understood and prosecuted in 4 ways:

1. It criminalises coercive control

Coercive control refers to controlling and harmful patterns of behaviour. It can include psychological, emotional, sexual or financial abuse. It may or may not involve physical violence. It’s often systematic and the effects can be devastating. Scottish Women’s Aid report that coercive control is the kind of violence survivors tell them has the most significant impact and is hardest to recover from.

The new Domestic Abuse Act makes coercive control a criminal offence for the first time, meaning that people engaging in patterns of controlling behaviour can now be punished by law.

2. It makes domestic abuse a ‘course of conduct’ offence

This simply means the law will look at domestic abuse cases through a ‘big picture’ perspective. Abusive situations are often made up of long lists of events, moments and actions which take place over periods of time. If each of these were to be looked at individually, they might not seem very serious. However, when many small incidents are pieced together and the accumulative effect considered, the big picture can show a deeply harmful situation.

This is very different from past approaches of treating domestic abuse as one-off incidents that could be pinpointed to certain times on certain dates, like we would for burglaries or traffic accidents. Domestic abuse doesn’t necessarily operate like other crimes and the new law acknowledges that it is often more relevant to consider accumulative behaviour over time.

3. Proof that an individual was traumatised is no longer required

As CEO of Scottish Women’s AidDr Marsha Scottexplains, this is “a terrible thing to have to go into court and prove”. In the past, the law has been criticised for re-traumatising victims and placing unreasonable obstacles in the path to securing a conviction.

Instead of requiring proof that a victim was harmed, the new law requires proof that the accused intended to cause harm. It states that if a reasonable person with access to all the facts would assume that the situation would cause harm, this will be considered appropriate evidence.

4. Children are acknowledged as victims

The Domestic Abuse Act reflects a new understanding within the legal system that it doesn’t matter if children are physically present when abusive behaviour is taking place. If they are in the family, they are a victim.

For the first time, the enormous impact that growing up within an abusive situation can have on a child will be recognised in the law and considered in the prosecution process.

Changes to the structure, wording and focus of domestic abuse legislation create the possibility for us to change the landscape of gender-based violence.

Scotland is a country committed to remaining at the forefront of global gender equality policy – a fact I’m extremely proud of. At the same time, it’s a country where gender definitions remain stiflingly narrow. Traditional understandings of masculinity can make healthy expression of emotion an impossibility for many men, and notions of familial responsibility can leave many women playing out restrictive and isolating roles in society.

The widely-held social belief that what happens behind closed doors is no one else’s business doesn’t help, nor does a very Scottish tendency not to want to ‘make a fuss’. These are pieces in the gender equality puzzle that can’t be fixed by the law. They require education, open conversation and a refusal to continue acting as though the status quo is inevitable.

Gender inequality is both the cause and the consequence of gender-based violence.

Abuse doesn’t always show itself in the ways it does in soaps or films. It isn’t always neighbours calling the police, mascara running down cheeks and black eyes. It can be quiet, and invisible, and soul-destroying.

We have a huge amount of work still to do. But with this new legal framework, Scotland is starting to feel better equipped for the task.

The Pattern of Domestic Violence

Like every tsunami, it starts small. A slap here, a hit there. Nothing to worry about. He apologizes, says it will never happen again.

But it does.

It happens again. Harder this time, perhaps a punch or two. It becomes a pattern.

Beat, repent, repeat.

The physical abuse.

The pattern.

OR

It is completely inconspicuous. Almost invisible to the outside world and sometimes, to the victim, too. Charming dominance turns into irrational jealousy and possessiveness. Endearing neediness becomes suffocating. You find yourself trying to stay out for as long as you can. You know it’s coming.

The emotional abuse.

The pattern.

According to the World Health Organization, almost one third of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime.

Not everyone has the courage to fight back against abuse and violence. It’s not simply about being ‘brave’ – it becomes almost impossible to have courage if you don’t have a voice. Sometimes, even those who do are stifled by the fear of humiliation and social stigma surrounding gender-based violence.

Not everyone has a loving family or friends to fall back on. Not everyone can simply wake up one day, decide they have had enough, and leave. It’s not that easy, oh how I wish it was, but it isn’t.

Although, it’s also not impossible.

You might wonder, why must they stay? Is it the children? Or the familiarity? Or worst of all, the tainted love? It’s generally an amalgamation of all of these reasons along with many more. Of course, none of them can ever justify the destruction of lives, hearts, and a place that now detestably resembles home but is far, far from it.

The more you take, the less you can give to yourself or those you love. You deserve a safe environment. Children deserve a safe environment.

Make a safety plan. You can break the pattern and protect yourself and others. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.

“Break the pattern before it breaks you.” – Colleen Hoover, It Ends With Us

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What the Word Feminism Means To Me

At one point last year, I felt in serious doubt of my feminism.

Maybe it was because I hated that the #MeToo movement seemed to mean nothing in South Africa, a country where rape is a serious epidemic. My brother also asked me what feminism meant. He told me that he believes men and women should be equal but does not identify as feminist. What he said at that particular moment had me wondering. Now I am wondering again, what does feminism mean to me?

I knew I was a feminist ever since I was a child, I just didn’t know the word or definition. I would take on any boy who treated me inadequately. Most of them would usually call me stuck up.

Just like my brother, I did not know what value the word feminism carries. The first time I heard it was in the song ***Flawless by Beyonce. I immediately thought, “Oh, I’m a feminist.”

In high school, my newly obtained feminist title inspired me to do speeches for assessment marks on the topic. After the second speech I made on gender issues, my Afrikaans teacher said she hoped that one day I was going to do something about it. Her words stuck with me.

The 2018 death of the mother of our nation, Winnie Mandela, revived my feminism. She kept the ideas of her husband alive while he and many other anti-Apartheid leaders were imprisoned and exiled. While our country was transitioning to democracy, she was painted as the unfaithful wife of Nelson Mandela, and as a murderer. White oppressors, along with black patriarchy, tried their best to keep her down. Her legacy is now told by us, the people.

I think we need history lessons on feminism. There are still too many untold stories, especially those of women of colour.

Violence against women and children is terrifyingly high in South Africa.
Since I was 13, I have always wondered, “Is it safe for me to walk around the corner alone?” I also wonder about the prospects of me being physically assaulted or abused by a partner. I’m not a woman who conforms to patriarchal standards. It is therefore not an impossible prospect in this country that I might be assaulted.

Police and government must do more to address the horrors women and girls in South Africa face on a daily basis.

To me, feminism means not allowing a man to have any kind of power over you. I still consider myself an unlearned feminist. I’ve learned about feminists like Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem and Kimberlé Crenshaw and I’m making it a priority to read more. I just wish I knew about more African feminist idols.

I also still consider myself an impractical feminist. At the moment I talk, write, post and like about it. Is it enough in this digital age? Is there more I could do?

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