The girls who fled a life of sex slavery

Abducted girls are finding refuge and rehabilitation in an academy in Uganda

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Four months ago, a woman in her early 30s came knocking on Alice Achan’s door in Pader, northern Uganda. ‘‘She had four children, ranging in age from 18 months to eight years. “They had walked, swum and hitched 800km from the Central African Republic ,’’ said Mrs Achan. ‘‘They had escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that abducted the woman as a child in 1990.’’

The best-known image of child soldiers is of drug-crazed teenage boys brandishing Kalashnikovs. They are the ones reporters meet at roadblocks. But deep in the bush, in rebel camps, in the intimacy of commanders’ huts, girls as young as 11 are performing war duty – cooking, cleaning, acting as porters and sex slaves – and becoming mothers. Joseph Kony, the notorious LRA leader, is reported by people who have escaped from his armed group to have as many as 30 “wives”.

Twenty-five years of child-focused terror by the LRA in central Africa means Unicef, the leading children’s charity, which is partner to The Independent in our Christmas appeal, needs to address an ever-expanding range of issues linked to child soldiers. Most immediate and visible is the need to handle the trauma experienced by girls and boys drawn into the heat of combat and sex slavery. Next comes their rehabilitation, education and possible community reintegration. Now, in the context of a long-running reign of terror like that of the pseudo-religious LRA, a need is emerging to help women like the one who knocked on Mrs Achan’s door in August: an escaped former abductee whose children, by any measure, are the product of rape. They, like their mother, must adapt to a new life away from the brutal rebel environment where the chief currency in any transaction is violence.

Mrs Achan, 38, is accustomed to filling gaps. In 2003, she founded the Christian Counselling Fellowship (CCF), a grassroots organisation in northern Uganda which has been supported by Unicef since 2004. From it sprang the Pader Girls’ Academy – a boarding school where young mothers bring their babies to school. To date it has schooled some 500 girls, several of whom have gone on to university.

The Independent’s readers are supporting Unicef’s perilous work rescuing child soldiers from the arms of rebel groups in the Central African Republic – to which the LRA has largely moved its operations since leaving Uganda in 2005. It now operates and abducts children in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the CAR.

Mrs Achan remains one of Africa’s foremost experts on the trauma faced by surviving girls and women. “The woman who came to us in August had been living with a commander. She and the children became separated from the commanders after a battle. This gave her the chance to join an escape by a total of 10 girls. Three of the group drowned in a river during the escape but seven made it to Uganda and she came to us because this was her area,” said Mrs Achan.

“She was mature. She was withdrawn but she knew what she wanted. She and the children spent two months with us. We helped her make contact with her family – who had assumed they would never see her again – and assisted them with arranging accommodation for her. So far, it looks as though she is going to be able to remain with them.’’

Reintegrating former child soldiers into their families and communities is one of the greatest challenges faced by Unicef and groups it supports like Mrs Achan’s CCF. ‘‘It can be very difficult to gain acceptance for the return of a girl and her baby, especially if she has been linked to a commander who committed atrocities in that community.’’

Mrs Achan stresses the need for continuous work within war-affected communities. ‘‘The war has left many social problems in northern Uganda . In refugee camps, many girls became accustomed to trading sex for food, particularly with members of the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (the Ugandan army).

“Girls as young as 13 were taken into military barracks and made ‘wives’.  In return, their parents received beans and maize flour. Wealthy businessmen also took advantage of the insecurity as many parents could not access their farming land. This has left a situation where, even now, many girls equate sex with security and think their  only option is to give in. So we still see a lot of pregnancy among girls.’’

Former abductee girls are generally considered unmarriageable which was why CCF – after initially working in refugee camps in northern Uganda – created the girls’ academy in 2008. ‘‘Many families did not have the will or resources to take back their children. Culturally they also had trouble with the idea of sending a girl to school when she had a baby. We also noticed that the girls were remarkably strong, resourceful and showed academic promise.’’

Surviving girls may be more resilient than boys, she says. ‘‘At least in the LRA, girls are not used as fighters. As a rule they have witnessed atrocities but not committed them. They have been exposed to trauma and even if they have been sexually abused, they have often lived with a commander who provided food. The fact that they are mothers has given them a sense of responsibility and built their confidence. You have to be brave and creative in your thinking to work out an escape plan. So the women we see are highly resourceful.’’

The girls show great application to their studies. ‘‘Most of them were abducted as they reached secondary school age so that is the level we aim at. We started with 45 girls, 60 per cent of whom came from the LRA and 40 per cent of whom had been sexually abused in refugee camps.

“We gradually increased pupil numbers and are now up to 400 girls, the majority of whom are no longer LRA returnees. This year, about 15 will enter university. We already have 22 teaching graduates from among our girls and 15 nursing assistants. They have returned to their communities and are enormously valued there.”

 

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