Human Rights

As Northern Uganda Recovers From Conflict, Local Organization Focuses on Hope, Property Rights

 

Article Highlights

Uganda

As communities recover from the conflict in northern Uganda, property disputes are emerging as a big issue. Facilitation for Peace and Development works within the communities to settle the disputes through mediation.

LIRA, UGANDA – Eunice Apio realized she had heard enough after 18 months of listening to the traumatic stories of women who had been abducted as children during the Lord’s Resistance Army’s insurgency in northern Uganda.    

“After one and half years, I had seen so much that I was more traumatized than the people I was supposed to rehabilitate,” says Apio, who was working for an organization called Concerned Parents Association.

Mothers set up Concerned Parents Association after the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels abducted 139 girls in 1996 from St. Mary’s College, a secondary school for girls in Aboke, a town in northern Uganda’s Lira district. The deputy headmistress and a young male teacher followed the rebels and eventually rescued 109 girls. Mothers of the victims set up Concerned Parents Association to advocate for the release of the 30 girls left in captivity. 

The school is Apio’s alma mater, so she joined the organization as a coordinator after graduating from university in 2001. Her duties included program initiation, advocacy, fundraising, reintegration and rehabilitation of returnees and reunification of families.

In 2002, the Ugandan army rescued many abductees. Apio says that many returned with harrowing stories of rebels throwing people into burning huts or bashing them to death.

Apio says that the stories weighed on her. Each day, she cried at home. Her family advised her to leave the job, so she decided to pursue her master’s degree in human rights at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. While working at Concerned Parents Association, she had noted that the law, policies and programs ignored children born in captivity, and she wanted to change that.

Even though Apio was in Kampala, the distance could not erase the horrors that she had seen and listened to, she says. She was concerned about the fate of the returning children who had become mothers in captivity, many times as a result of rape by rebels, who kept them as their sex slaves.

Because of the stigma attached to rape and having sexual relations with rebels who terrorized their communities, both mother and child faced rejection from their family and the society at large. This stigmatization can be traced to the Langi custom in which relatives do not accept children born out of wedlock in the maternal home.

Once Apio attained her master’s degree, she started a nongovernmental organization called Facilitation for Peace and Development with her husband, Fred Ebil, and best friend, Joy Acen, to help rehabilitate these women by promoting property rights in Lira.

Moved by the atrocities suffered by women during the Lord’s Resistance Army’s insurgency in northern Uganda, Apio set up Facilitation for Peace and Development to empower women to claim their property rights. In addition, the organization offers livelihood training in the communities. Organization members say they lead mediation efforts, and beneficiaries say their new land rights and income-generation groups are changing their lives.

Tens of thousands of people died and 2 million people were displaced in northern Uganda during the two-decade armed conflict between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization. The Lord’s Resistance Army also abducted tens of thousands of children, with various organizations’ estimates ranging from 30,000 to 60,000.

Apio says the community embraced Facilitation for Peace and Development.

“People were pleased that for once, there was an organization that was not talking about the Lord’s Resistance Army,” Apio says. “The new organization also rekindled people’s hope because it was composed of young people from the region and it was talking about people’s rights.”

At the time, the majority of nongovernmental organizations operating in Lira only focused on the war and its consequences, Apio says. But they ignored the fact that women and children were powerless to protect their property.

Apio says her own family situation especially enabled her to empathize with the women and children. Her mother had lost most of her property and also the land title to a strategic property in town after Apio’s father’s death. The original land title was also missing at the local municipal council, so they were evicted. 

The family then relocated to another property they owned in Lira, but her paternal uncle ordered them off that property too. Apio’s mother sought help from the Catholic church in Lira, and her uncle backed off. This property now houses Facilitation for Peace and Development.

Apio says the organization partnered with the Apac District Local Council to present a three-day workshop on property rights and the possible interventions. Participants included the area chief, traditional leaders, women, youth and district council representatives.

After the meeting, Apio says the organization launched a pilot program in 12 subcounties of Apac, which are now part of Lira district, to educate clan members on property rights. It also trained a 12-member committee as paralegals to work in the subcounties and broadcast the organization’s programs on seven radio stations in the area.

Salome Adit, a social worker with the organization, says its local network now includes 1,700 paralegals, who emphasize reconciliation to resolve property disputes. The District Land Tribunal, which hears appeal cases over land disputes from the subcounty and urban tribunals, started referring cases to the organization, Apio adds.

Brenda Akullo, a legal aid officer at Facilitation for Peace and Development, says the organization promotes both formal and informal ways of settling land disputes.

“When the informal methods fail, then the women are advised to go to court,” she says. “Facilitation for Peace and Development provides free legal representation to women whose cases are registered with the organization.”

Six months after the pilot program began, Apio says the organization conducted a survey that revealed that in addition to property rights, they needed to address children’s rights and sexual and gender-based violence. The organization has since trained 500 community peace promoters in gender-based violence, child protection, mediation and counseling and set up 500 child protection committees.

Lawrence Alot says he has volunteered for Facilitation for Peace and Development as a community peace promoter since 2005, when he was still in an Internally Displaced People’s camp. He works at the organization’s office in Barr subcounty, where he offers mediation services three days a week.

The organization also recognized a need for income-generation projects. In 2011, the organization trained 6,400 people under its better livelihood project, Apio says. So far in 2012, it has trained 6,450 in its farming methods program. To date, residents in a total of 8,500 households have received training and support for small-scale businesses.

While traditionally women do not own land, Facilitation for Peace and Development trains the women to know that they can own land and use it for their own livelihood. It trains women in farming and entrepreneurship, as well as gives them farming inputs, such as seeds, ox ploughs and oxen.

Caroline Ojok is a Facilitation for Peace and Development beneficiary and was the first chairwoman of the income-generation group that she belongs to within the organization. Today she is serves as its secretary.

Local government officials referred her to Facilitation for Peace and Development after she approached them about a land dispute with her brother-in-law. At the organization’s mediation session, Ojok’s brother-in-law understood the injustice he had committed and returned her land. Ojok then joined one of the organization’s women’s income-generation groups. She says that vulnerable members of the community receive priority membership to the groups.

“Priority of membership was given to orphans, widows, widowers and single mothers living in the parents’ homes,” she says.

Another beneficiary, Christine Atala, a single mother of five children, says that before she joined Facilitation for Peace and Development, she thought that single mothers and their children had no rights. But she has learned from the organization that each woman and each child has rights.

“I had such low self-esteem that I never even knew how to handle my children or to communicate with them or the neighbors,” Atala says. “But now I know and even advise other people in the community.”

Atala functions as secretary of one of the women’s income-generation groups. She is now independent and has sent her children to school because of the trainings she has received through the organization.

Daniel Okello, coordinator of the Lira NGO Forum, praises Facilitation for Peace and Development for assisting returnees in reintegrating into their communities after living in internally displaced people’s camps for many years. The Lira NGO Forum is an umbrella body of civil society organizations operating in Lira district, including Facilitation for Peace and Development.

“FAPAD interventions have been timely because they help the people to reintegrate,” Okello says. “During the time of living in camps, many people got used to receiving handouts. But with training and livelihood programs that encourage self-reliance and focus on grassroots and give implements, people realize that it is possible to stand and live on their own.”

Today, Facilitation for Peace and Development has offices in dozens of subcounties in Lango subregion. Apio says the organization is currently focusing on refresher training sessions and monitoring and evaluation in order to strengthen its structures to ensure that local communities are respecting issues such as land rights.

Okello also commends Facilitation for Peace and Development’s legal training, sensitization and support. He says he would like to see the organization move beyond family level to address community conflicts and extend their services outside Lira.