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‘Empowering Hands’ for former child soldiers in Uganda

© UNICEF Uganda/2007/Hyun
Sarah, a former abductee, plays with her young son in the Amuru camp for displaced persons in northern Uganda.

By Chulho Hyun

AMURU, Uganda, 16 July 2007 – Sarah (not her real name) is a former child soldier who was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when she was seven years old. She was not reuinited with her family until last year, at the age of 17, with the help of World Vision, a UNICEF implementing partner.

Sarah was able to return home when an LRA officer finally consented to her request because she was pregnant. The release of child prisoners is said to be rare, but escape is even rarer. Sarah’s brother was also abducted but unfortunately it is believed that he died while being held captive.

UNICEF helps formerly abducted children like Sarah by supporting centres that provide family tracing and psychosocial counselling. Key allies in this effort have been community-based organizations like Empowering Hands, a peer-support group established in 2004 by formerly abducted individuals themselves.

Empowerment through music and dance

Empowering Hands organizes village discussions and works to raise awareness about child abduction through musical and dramatic performances. Earnings from each performance go to a revolving fund that enables group members to start income-generating projects. Sarah belongs to the Empowering Hands music and dance troupe in the Amuru camp. She can now talk with hope about resuming her schooling one day, even as she earns a small living as a tailor to fend for herself and her son. 

© UNICEF Uganda/2007/Hyun
The Empowering Hands music and dance troupe performs the 'Roya Dance' down a main thoroughfare of the Amuru displacement camp.

“My involvement in Empowering Hands has made life much more bearable,” says Sarah. “I see the possibilities.”

More than 2,000 formerly abducted children in Uganda have been reached this year through community-based support groups like Empowering Hands. The number of reported child abductions has been declining since August 2006, when the Government of Uganda and the LRA reached a landmark cessation of hostilities agreement. The fact remains, however, that there has yet to be an official release of the estimated 1,500 children and women associated with the LRA.

Support from the community

 “Placing the centre of support squarely on community members is essential to giving the formerly abducted their lives back,” says the head of UNICEF operations in Uganda, Keith McKenzie,  “Without this strong sense of ownership, one squanders the opportunity for children and young persons, our most precious resource, to grow up in a climate of peace and tolerance.”

The open participation of community members is an integral element in creating a protective environment for returnees and their families. Communities can address stigmatization, limited economic viability and other common challenges faced by formerly abducted persons, and look together for solutions to reduce their vulnerability.

Back in her home, made of hardened mud with a thatched grass roof, Sarah says her most immediate concern is for her son’s future. That future must include going to school and getting proper medical care, she insists. The nightmares of combat she experienced must have no place in the life of her child. 

“I am angry at what happened because it should never have happened,” Sarah says softly. “I would like everyone who can do something about this war to bring it to an end.”



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