Woman Offers Local Residents a Role in Rebuilding Northern Uganda

 

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GULU, UGANDA – During the two-decade war that ravaged northern Uganda, Pamela Angwech decided to join the fight in her own way.

“It is as if the battlefield was in the body of the woman,” says Angwech, who is in her early 30s. “The soldiers lost their strategy, and the war shifted from the national agenda to the body of the woman.” 

To give these women a voice, she started Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalization in Gulu, a district in northern Uganda, about midway through the war. Her goal was to create a platform for women at every level of society to participate in realities affecting their lives.

“The woman needs to move from the grassroots to the national and onto the global level,” says Angwech, executive director of the organization. “That is when the woman will be complete.”

Angwech was in primary school when the war started in 1986 between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army. She says the nuns at her school used to lock the students in the convent conference hall or make them hide in the ceiling during the night in order to protect them from the mass abductions of schoolchildren by the LRA.

The war was still raging when she completed secondary school in 1995 and moved on to college. After attaining a degree in business, she wanted to work with the United Nations.

“It had so many vehicles moving around the Gulu town,” she says. “But above all, I felt deep concern about the universal and global visibility of the U.N., especially its approaches of helping refugees and the internally displaced people in the camps at the time.”

She also needed to support her mother and siblings because her father had died of an illness some years before.

“I badly needed a job,” she says, “as I and my siblings barely had anything to survive on.”

Each morning, she would sit at the gate of the U.N. offices, hoping to get a chance to plead her case. A week later, a World Food Programme officer asked her why she sat at the gate each morning. She told him that she was an orphan and wanted to work for the United Nations. He offered her a volunteer position distributing food aid to internally displaced people in the camps.

From hitting a land mine to falling into an ambush, Angwech says they took many risks getting the food to the camps. At the distribution centers, Angwech used to climb on top of the vehicles to unload the food.

From the vantage point atop the trucks, she noticed that the long food lines mainly consisted of women, many of them with babies on their backs. There were also a lot of elderly women, and rogue boys would sometimes waylay them in order to steal their food. If anyone missed or lost their monthly ration, that family would go without food for the month.

 

People stood in the lines for hours waiting for the food. The number of people in the camps ranged from 35,000 in small camps, to 65,000 in medium camps to 150,000 in large camps, Angwech says.

 

After two months, Angwech’s dedication earned her a promotion to storekeeper. She later rose through the ranks to become store manager, logistics officer and eventually project officer in charge of food distributions.

 

One day in 1998, Angwech noticed a young mother with a baby strapped to her back sandwiched in the food line. Taking pity on her, she called the woman out of the line and gave her the rations. As the woman was leaving, Angwech asked her to check on her baby.

 

She had noticed that the baby had been sleeping awkwardly on the mother’s back. When the woman untied the wrapper, the baby was dead. She wailed, blaming herself for coming to the food line with a little baby. 

 

That night, Angwech did not sleep, her thoughts fixed on the young mother with the baby. She thought about what the women were enduring during the war and decided that it was time for them to speak out.

 

“We had to talk,” she says. “Women were being raped, mutilated, dying and losing their children, and yet everybody’s mind was just on food.

 

That year, she launched Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalization.

 

Angwech started the organization to give local women a platform to speak out about the injustices they suffered as victims of the war. After starting under a mango tree with a group of 20 women, the organization eventually participated in official peace talks to end the war. Now, the organization trains women and men to be human rights and justice leaders who contribute to the healing and rebuilding of their communities after the war. Many beneficiaries become organization volunteers, and Angwech aims to continue to expand the network.

 

In the year the war ended, married women living in camps for internally displaced people responded that they were more likely to participate in decision-making than those living in other regions of Uganda, according to the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey.

 

Eight years earlier, Angwech began her organization by mobilizing women in the camps. At the first meeting, there were just 20 women, but word continued to spread. Fifty women attended the second meeting, and the numbers kept increasing.

 

They met under mango trees in the camps: formerly abducted women and girls, child and middle-aged mothers and caretakers of families. Angwech started organizing meetings in three different camps near Gulu three times a week to discuss how the war was affecting women.

 

“The war is targeting us,” Angwech says she told the women during the meetings. “We are raped. Our children are dying. Even the soldiers are sons of women.”

 

Until these meetings, local women had not realized the power of a collective voice, she says. The women began to share their own stories: how they stood in long food queues under the scorching sun, scraped up the beans that had fallen on the ground after the distribution, cooked the food for their children but declined to eat it themselves, already worried about how to get the next meal. One woman told them of a government soldier who raped both her and her daughter at the same spot on different occasions.

 

“The war was fought in the body of the woman,” Angwech says. “The woman’s body took all forms of abuses. It is the woman who was raped, abducted, forced to become a sex slave to commanders, infected with HIV/AIDS. She is the one who suffered with the children, and she is the one who lost her children to the war.”

 

She says the war ended up inflicting more harm on the body of the woman than on the military.

 

“The war ended up overthrowing the body of the woman and not the government,” she says.

 

Between 2003 and 2004, Angwech led the women in marches through the streets of Gulu town. They carried manila cards that told their stories and demanded change.

 

“We also started training women at [the] grassroots level, training women leaders to become agents of change,” she says. “We set up a community network reporting. Its work involved reporting things that were done against women, such as rape and other forms of breach of women’s rights.”

 

Angwech was also determined to push women to the negotiating table. By the time peace talks between the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army started in 2006, her organization was participating.

 

“We managed to send women to the Garamba peace talks,” she says. “We also participated in the carrying of the Peace Torch.”

 

The torch was an initiative by U.N. Development Fund for Women, now the U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

 

The government developed the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan, a road map to guide the reconstruction in northern Uganda. But without the financial capacity to implement the plan single-handedly, it has been working closely with nongovernmental organizations and development partners.

 

Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalization is one such partner. Its focus is to involve grassroots women in the peace, recovery and development process.

 

“In 2008, we also organized a grassroots women’s conference,” Angwech says. “About 1,500 women from all subcounties in the Northern region attended. It focused on peace-building and women’s rights.”

The organization currently runs various programs focusing on peace and development, including Community Access to Justice, which is funded by Open Society Foundations. Started in 2009, the program aims to empower the community to safeguard human rights. It also seeks to address traditional inequalities, such as land ownership.

The organization now operates offices in Gulu, Nwoya and Amuru districts in northern Uganda. Angwech says she draws inspiration from her late father, who was committed to women’s empowerment.

 

“In addition, I love women,” she says. “And if I have the capacity, I do not want any woman to suffer.”

 

But Angwech has learned that in order for Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalization’s programs to succeed, they must also engage the men in the communities.

 

“If you look at men as negative, it is difficult to change them,” she says. “So although this is [a] women’s rights organization, we work across all sectors. So there are men in the community who support and understand women’s rights. The role of such men is important because if a man is a problem in a family, it is better for another man to speak to him.”

 

Eric Okello is a human rights and justice volunteer for the organization in Lamogi, a subcounty of Amuru district. He says he used to not care about his community. But learning about human rights during the volunteer training completely changed his attitude.

 

“I started thinking about people, and I even apologized to those I had been ignoring in my community,” he says.

 

Okello had a great impact on Lucie Atim Adong. Adong is both a widow and HIV-positive. She says that when her husband died, her brother-in-law, who was also the village councilor, took her land. Okello intervened. He talked to Adong’s brother-in-law, who agreed to return the land to her and pay her for the part he had sold.

 

Showing how the people whom the organization assists many times become volunteers themselves, Adong now works as one of its human rights volunteers. She is on the village health team and is in charge of three parishes.

 

She educates people living with HIV and AIDS in the parishes about positive living. She encourages them to go for testing and to take their medication, and she also gives hospital and health center referrals if they become ill. She ensures that parents take their children for immunization and that expectant mothers go for antenatal care.

 

She even took in a 13-year-old orphan with HIV for three months. The girl had refused to take her medication, so Adong invited her to live in her home in order to help her to understand the importance of positive living and to persuade her to start taking her medication daily.

 

In order to implement its programs, Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalization enlisted the help of the authorities in subcounties to identify 20 people in the community to serve as human rights volunteers. Okello was one of these people.

 

Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalization trained the volunteers in guidance and counseling, conflict resolution, lobbying and advocacy, community mobilization, monitoring and documentation, and various national and international human and women’s rights legislation.

 

Volunteers like Okello receive a monthly motivation allowance of 50,000 shillings ($20 USD) and bicycles to perform their community outreach work. Subcounty leaders have also been added.

 

The volunteers continue to collaborate with authorities. They work with the Justice, Law and Order Sector, an arm of the Ministry of Justice, as well as local police. Volunteers say they have bridged the gap between police and the community.

 

“People used to take the role of police as that of arresting others only,” Okello says. “But now, there is [a] good relationship, and people are no longer intimidated by the police presence.”

 

Peter Susu, the officer in charge of the Lamogi police post, agrees that there has been a positive change in attitude in the community and a drop in crime as a result of the volunteers’ work.

 

“I have served in the police force for 23 years,” he says, “and the participation of the human rights volunteers has brought the relationship between the community and the police to a new level of cooperation and understanding.”


Okello says he’s happy to be resourceful, respectful and respected within his community. Other volunteers agree.

 

“Because of [the] human rights training, I now know that all people are equal, whether HIV-positive or widows,” says Chris Olweny, another volunteer.

 

Angwech is fueled by these stories of people who have benefited from her organization, but she says her work is not done.

 

“I see GWED-G expanding into a bigger organization, growing into a big network for women around the world,” she says. “I see it empowering women and families. I see it having infrastructures that facilitate the empowerment of women leaders around the country. I see it as a mentoring institution for young women.”