Standing up for women’s rights in the shadow of war

“If you become used to speaking in this group, you can do the same elsewhere,” says refugee Veronica Lakulu, shown here addressing a women’s group. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam.

By Elizabeth Stevens

More than a million refugees from South Sudan have fled to Uganda, where Oxfam partners are helping women fight for equality, security, justice, and dignity.

When women arrive in northern Uganda from South Sudan, they are fresh from the horrors of war. They tell of the arrival of soldiers in their towns and villages, the violent deaths of loved ones, and their own terrifying flights to safety across the border. They tell of their struggle to keep children safe—their own and the stranded young ones they adopted along the way—but too many found they were no match for men with guns. One mother told of surviving a fearsome three-week journey; at one point they were caught by soldiers, she said gravely. “They tortured us for three hours in the bush.” 

Around 85 percent of the refugees from South Sudan that reach Uganda are women and children. Here, they are far safer than before, but not yet secure. One kind of threat they face is external: domestic and other gender-based violence; one is more insidious: the effect of trauma on their spirits.

But sit down with a women’s group organized by Oxfam partners CEFORD (Community Empowerment for Rural Development) and AWYAD (African Women and Youth Action for Development), and you’ll get to see women taking giants steps toward recovery. They may greet you with a dance, and a song with harmonies that melt your insides. And when you sit together, they will likely be at ease—and ready for a good laugh. These are safe spaces, and the women use them well. Here, they have a chance to talk freely, and to listen. One of the keenest pleasures of the meetings may be the chance to take a break from bad memories and enjoy the present moment in good company. But for some, the groups may also be profoundly life-changing, as they have turned out to be incubators for leadership. 

“Women who used to be afraid to speak up are now leading women’s groups,” says AWYAD field coordinator Teddie Babu. 

Group leader Veronica Lakulu agrees. “If you become used to speaking in this group, you can do the same elsewhere.” 

CEFORD and AWYAD are making sure the women in the groups learn about what their rights are, how they can assert them, and how they can help protect one another, and the messages are having an impact.

“I used to have the perception that men were superior, but now I understand that there should be a balance of power,” said one participant. “I realize that children have rights,” she added. And that includes the right to an education, and to delaying marriage until 18—Uganda’s age of consent. 

Taking gender-based violence seriously

Rape is taking place on a massive scale in the South Sudan conflict, and many of the women in the refugee camps—or settlements, as they are called in Uganda—have experienced or witnessed it. In the past, they had little recourse, but if women are attacked here, there’s something they can do about it, involving police, the UN refugee agency, and aid groups that specialize in protection. CEFORD and AWYAD have raised awareness about the services available, and have helped prepare teams of women on safe ways to take action against domestic violence in their communities; they have also trained police in how to handle cases of domestic violence. The women say it’s making a difference.

CEFORD program staff Lillian Obiale (left) and Donna Juliet (right) make a home visit in the Rhino settlement to discuss hygiene practices. CEFORD and AWYAD are part of an Oxfam-led initiative known as Empowering Local and National Humanitarian Actors (ELNHA), which—through grants, training, and advocacy—aims to help local organizations become stronger and more influential. Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

A team member in the Omugo settlement recalls hearing a violent fight break out. She called the police and they responded, but when the dust settled, she and a colleague went to talk to the couple. “You are sisters and brothers,” she said. “Don’t do this again.” They agreed, and the violence hasn’t recurred. The women intervened again in a case where demands for conjugal sex erupted into a fierce fight. They listened to both sides of the dispute, made sure each understood the other’s point of view, and helped them come to an agreement—one that the couple has continued to abide by. Over time, she says, her community has shifted in a positive direction. “There’s no more grabbing,” she says. “No more physical violence.”

A woman from the Palabek settlement to the east reiterated—and appreciated—that people are taking gender-based violence seriously.  “In the past, we didn’t think there was any point in reporting a crime because nothing would come of it,” she said. “Now it’s different.”

But beyond interventions after the fact, CEFORD and AWYAD are laying the groundwork for peaceable relationships by starting men’s groups in the camps, to raise awareness about the rights of women and children and to be sure men, too, have a safe space to talk. 

CEFORD and AWYAD are part of an Oxfam-led initiative known as Empowering Local and National Humanitarian Actors, or ELNHA, which—through grants, training, and advocacy—aims to help local organizations become stronger and more influential. 

"You feel you can trust him"

Jacky Aciro is a wife, a mother, and a refugee from South Sudan. As she cares for her young children and prepares a meal, she exudes calmness and a quiet sense of humor. Her husband Yoweri sits by her side, plucking greens from their stems for the family dinner. It’s not what he was raised to do back home, but here in a refugee settlement in Uganda, he cleans and cooks and does whatever’s needed for his family. He takes part in a men’s group organized by AWYAD and through that experience has come to believe in gender equality. 

Jacki Aciro and her husband Yoweri prepare dinner together. “When your husband shares the workload with you, you feel like he cares about you,” she says. “You feel you can trust him.” Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

His change in attitude has improved his relationship with his wife, he says, and she agrees. “When your husband shares the workload with you, you feel like he cares about you,” she says. “You feel you can trust him.” 

“When I return to South Sudan, I’ll take these beliefs with me,” says Yoweri. “Now, they’re a part of me.”  

 

In the refugee settlements of Uganda, the work of the Oxfam partners on gender and protection has included organizing women’s and men’s groups and committees; training police to handle cases of gender-based violence; distributing specialized hygiene kits for women and new mothers; advocating for children to attend school; sponsoring mixed-gender soccer/football teams; promoting reproductive health and family planning, and providing training and supplies to sew reusable menstrual pads.