Trauma to Triumph: Restoring hope in post-conflict communities
Twenty years ago, the world celebrated the signing of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This document recognized the value of individual children and bestowed them with the same rights as adults. At that time, in my home country of Uganda, the Convention and the advancements it brought to the world were far removed from the local conflict that was just beginning to take shape. The past two decades of rebel activity in northern Uganda has caused massive displacement of people and the destruction of social infrastructure throughout the country. Random attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) forced families and individuals to abandon their villages and seek safety in vast camps for internally displaced persons. These camps also house many returning child soldiers and young women who became adolescent mothers after being kidnapped by the LRA.
The majority of young girls returning from the north were abducted when they were very small, and after being held hostage to conflict for several years are semi-illiterate. Almost all lost, or have become totally estranged from, their relatives. Because they no longer have the support and help of their families and communities, they have little chance of finding a decent livelihood and are at grave risk of resorting to prostitution to provide for themselves and their children. Both the child soldiers and these young girls are severely traumatized. As communities work to rebuild amid the destruction of the past two decades, the diverse needs and challenges unique to post-conflict and disarmament have inspired much of the work I undertake as the Director of St. Monica Gulu Girls’ Relief. For these children, their rights have not only been violated, they have never existed. We are working, one day at a time, to restore their dignity and to give them the skills and support they need to move forward in life.
St. Monica Girls’ Tailoring School has been running a vocational skills training programme since 1982 for girls whose lives and education were devastated by the dire effects of the rebel conflict. Since 2002, St. Monica’s has taken in over 1,400 girls, the majority of them young women returning from LRA captivity, including ‘wives’ of senior commanders such as Joseph Kony. Many of the young girls were abducted and endured horrendous treatment, routinely being subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Many became teen mothers and were then shunned by their families and communities. To address the needs unique to these young women, St. Monica’s created a more responsive and comprehensive programme, offering inclusive, nationally accredited courses in tailoring, catering, secretarial studies and computer applications.
Practical skills lead to personal victories
The courses at St. Monica’s contribute to rebuilding girls’ lives – socially, academically and economically – in a sustainable manner. When girls come to St. Monica’s, we tell them that we believe in practical skills and explain how important it is for them to develop skills so they can provide for themselves. Often it is not until the girls have begun to receive money for their work that they see they are rebuilding their lives and becoming empowered to care for themselves and their children. We also offer a day care centre for children of the young mothers who come to us for training; this allows for increased enrolment, retention and participation of the mothers in the skills training courses. This programme has strengthened literacy among female children, especially among babysitters, and it is an important component in helping to empower child mothers as they gain self-reliance through waged jobs, by starting their own microenterprises or by utilizing better agricultural methods.
As these girls begin to put their lives back together, education and vocational training is only one of the many pieces that have to be addressed. In war, life in its entirety – not just socially or physically – is disrupted. These girls’ rights have been violated in every way imaginable. While the country has a long way to go in rehabilitating former child soldiers and restoring infrastructure, small victories are being won every day, as we help young girls to recognize their self-worth.
Meeting rising needs
One thing we have found at St. Monica’s is that many of the girls and children in our programme have acute medical needs that are not being met. Local health facilities are poorly resourced and under-staffed. As victims of sexual violence, our girls – many of whom have contracted HIV/AIDS and other diseases – face health problems that urgently require treatment. To address this need, our programme has expanded and now also provides many health services. Our centre offers affordable and available basic health care for the students, their children and the local community, and we also provide specialized care for mothers and children. The centre also focuses on education initiatives that prioritize preventive care, helping young mothers to learn about their children’s health and nutrition, the aim of which is to reduce the under-five morbidity rate by preventing common childhood diseases within the student population and local populace, and also on reproductive health care.
A complementary but separate endeavour is community involvement in the post-conflict peace and disarmament efforts. St. Monica’s has established a transit centre that serves as a neutral meeting place, providing former LRA combatants and various community and Government groups with a place where they may meet.
St. Monica’s Tailoring Centre is making a modest attempt to deliver common goods to our community by embracing new challenges in the educational system and promoting women’s and children’s education. We hope the girls and children who come through our programme will contribute to and defend the very principles of social justice and children’s rights that are enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child through prosperity, harmony and integrity. In order for our country to continue rebuilding itself, it is important that women and children enjoy their social, economic, political and cultural rights.
Growing up in Northern Uganda and spending many years in Gulu, Sister Rosemary witnessed a massive crisis. Thousands of young children were abducted by the guerillas of the Lord’s Resistance Army and forced into unthinkable lives as soldiers or sexual slaves. Sister Rosemary decided that her school would help these outcasts. Throughout 2002, she appealed to them directly via radio announcements, and the response was overwhelming. St. Monica’s Tailoring School now houses a diverse group of refugees: former child soldiers, orphans, AIDS victims and young mothers. In recognition of the work she has undertaken, Sister Rosemary was honoured in 2007 as a CNN Hero.
Page last updated at 10:37 AM