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Of fish and giraffe: A ‘child mother’ in northern Uganda protects her daughters

When Milly Auma – carrying one daughter on her back, holding another by her side and leaning on a walking stick to support her wounded leg – emerged in Gulu in 2002, ten years after being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), she was convinced her decision to escape her captors had been right.  But in those first weeks and months, she did waver.

“People said I had joined [the LRA] willingly,” says Auma, now 26, recalling the difficulties she had in collecting water from the community well because of the insults she faced. “They would say, ‘Why do you taint us with your evil spirit?’ They would call my children ‘Kony’s kids.’ At least [with the LRA], a child was seen as ‘our child.’” One neighbour nicknamed her children as simply ‘Kony,’ referring to Joseph Kony, leader of the rebel group that has waged the 20-year conflict in northern Uganda.

Auma’s experiences echo the testimonies of other formerly abducted children and youths, and speak to the stigma and discrimination many encounter upon coming home. She, too, lashed out against individual insults on her and her children (aged two and four at the time of return). Despite the hardships she had endured during her captivity, she, too, contemplated going back voluntarily to the LRA if – in the end – she could not find the acceptance of the community. After all, she only wanted the best for her children.

In the end, it was this determined spirit which enabled Auma – taken from the community in her final year of primary school when she was nearly as old as her firstborn is now – to adapt to her new surroundings as an adult. What further helped strengthen the bond between her social and economic responsibilities was the assistance of the Youth Social Work Association (YSA), a community-based organization, supported by UNICEF and partners.

YSA conducts programmes for reintegrating formerly abducted children and other vulnerable adolescents to mainstream society. Projects include income-generation activities and peer-to-peer counselling, as well as training sessions in leadership and entrepreneurial skills. These sessions are delivered in a module named ‘Twiga,’ the Swahili word for ‘giraffe’ – an animal known for its ability to see far and wide.

In 2005, using what she learned through YSA, Auma invested a modest amount to transport freshwater fish from the Nile River in Jinja to Gulu and sell it in the local markets. She made an initial profit of UGX 100,000 (approximately US$ 50).  A second trip yielded UGX 200,000. And so on. The fish were first brought in plastic bags, that soon became basins. The mother of three – she delivered her third child in February – is now thinking about leasing a plot of land to grow vegetables to sell.

YSA Programme Officer Flora Omony says that Auma’s case and others show the link between the organization’s programmes and the resilience with which many formerly abducted children return from captivity. “These children and adolescents had the survivability to be with the LRA and even escape. We emphasize a generic set of skills and encourage [the formerly abducted] to build on their coping mechanisms.”

Since the start of the conflict, the LRA has abducted an estimated 25,000 children, including some 7,500 girls. Among the abducted girls are ‘child mothers,’ those who return from captivity having conceived and borne children of their own.

“Tensions exist between young people formerly with the LRA and the communities in which they now live. Such differences must be addressed consistently and in a way that promotes the development of the entire community if there is to be a durable peace in northern Uganda,” says the head of UNICEF operations in Uganda Martin Mogwanja.

Since her association with YSA, the most noticeable change that Asuma has experienced is the absence of any aggression towards those who label her and her children. “I now have a business and people see me as being successful,” she says.  On this day, she has come to the YSA office for a training session on identifying and counselling vulnerable adolescents. Before the session, she sticks a name-tag on her red bandana. “I should not be portrayed as being useless. If anyone says something negative about me, I now ignore it.”


© UNICEF Uganda/2006/Hyun

Milly Auma and two of her three children attend the YSA training session on participatory children and youth appraisal.