April 26th, 2017
Fighting Forced Marriage and Pregnancy in Northern Uganda
Caitlin Dykes Senior Essay Entry – 2nd Prize
Last year marked an unprecedented event in international justice, with the commencing of the trial of Dominic Ongwen at the International Criminal Court. Ongwen, a former Lords Resistance Army (LRA) commander and high ranking confidant of Joseph Kony, is currently facing 70 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity; including the conscription of child soldiers, pillaging, and murder (The Guardian, 2016). The trial is a landmark trial as Ongwen, a former child soldier himself, raises serious moral questions about duress and criminal responsibility. However, while many will focus on this contentious topic of ‘victim or perpetrator’, few are noting that the case marks another first in international law. While this is not the first time a defendant has been charged with sexually based offenses at the International Criminal Court, the trial does mark a far broader range of sexual and gender based crimes than has previously appeared in international justice. Among these charges are the war crimes of forced marriage and forced pregnancy (The Guardian, 2016). This is a monumental development that should not be overlooked, and one that is crucial when considering the violent repertoire of the LRA.
The Lords Resistance Army is a pseudo-Christian rebel group led by Joseph Kony. They began as a movement of Acholi Nationalism in the 1980’s Ugandan Civil War, and became one of the longest lasting guerilla groups (Kramer, 2012). The LRA is one of the least understood rebel movements in the world, primarily because of their unclear political goals. Despite originating from Acholi Nationalism, they frequently carry out attacks on unarmed Acholi civilians with indiscriminate brutality (Finnstrom, 2008). Human Rights Watch (2012) estimates that between 1987 and 2006, tens of thousands of civilians were killed by the war between the LRA and Museveni’s government. Similarly, over 1.9 million people have been displaced through the widespread looting, destruction of property and general terrorizing tactics employed by the LRA (HRW, 2012). Since 2006, the LRA has become relatively inactive in Uganda, as they retreated into neighboring countries. However, to date there are still frequent reports of more low-intensity attacks by LRA militants throughout Congo, as well as some areas of Sudan and the Central African Republic (LRA Crisis Tracker, 2015).
During the Ugandan civil war from 1987 – 2006, roughly 20,000 children were abducted as a systematic form of recruitment. While males often became soldiers, females generally became ‘wives’ of LRA soldiers through forced marriage (Annan, 2009). Within the confines of forced marriage, the LRA condoned and even encourage other forms of sexual violence, such as rape and forced impregnation. However, outside of forced marriage all forms of sexual violence were strictly prohibited and severely punished. While 93.7% of forcefully married abductees experienced sexual violence, only 6.9% of non-married did (Annan, 2009). It was found that almost half of female abductees were married to combatants in the LRA if their captivity lasted longer than 2 weeks (Annan, 2009).
Not only does this demonstrate how the LRA exercised far greater control over sexual crimes perpetrated by soldiers, but also the way in which forced marriage became a gateway for further sexual and gender based crimes to occur (Annan, 2009). The LRA believed that once a female enters into a forced marriage, that marriage creates a socially acceptable realm for the husband to commit other sexual assaults such as rape, forced impregnation and sexual slavery. Women and girls were awarded to soldiers for fulfilling orders from their commanders, and forced to have children to replenish the LRA ranks (Kramer, 2012).
The LRAs repertoire of physical violence does not follow this same pattern (Kramer, 2012), nor does their abduction of boys. Physical violence was used broadly and indiscriminately by the LRA. They participated in raids to terrorize civilian populations and frequently engage in looting, mutilations and killing (Finnstrom, 2008). Similarly, the abduction of boys is steady and indiscriminate, compared to the sporadic and targeted abduction of girls (Annan, 2009). These differences highlight the way in which forced marriage and forced impregnation was utilized by the LRA as a strategy of war (Wood, 2015).
Not only were women and girls victimized by the LRA, but they also faced strong discrimination if they returned to local communities after a period in the bush. In a country that has preserved traditional gender roles, women who have been branded as “bush-wives” face an inability to remarry due to the stigma attached to them. This leads women to become marginalized in society, as it is the men who have economic means and provide for their families (Carlson & Mazurana, 2008). Moreover, these girls are more at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, due to the dangerous sexual behavior of their ‘husbands’, who frequently have several wives (Migration Policy, 2005). In a country facing a significant number of HIV cases, this not only poses severe health problems to the victims, but also further impacts their ability to successfully marry and reconnect with local communities.
These issues are only amplified where women bore children out of such marriages, with locals judging women for having children out of traditional wedlock and fearing or resenting the presence of “rebel children” in the community (Akello, 2013). In Ugandan culture, women and children associated with the LRA face being branded as having “cen”, where they are possessed by ‘evil spirits’. In Ugandan cosmology, cen can pass easily from one individual to another, which leads to further ostracization of the victims from their communities (Akello, 2013; Finnstrom, 2008). While some traditional cleansing rituals exist to help boys reintegrate, there is nothing like this in place for women. The result is that girls are less able to integrate, and many refuse to return at all. Without reintegration, these girls face higher likelihood of being re-victimized, and so the cycle continues (Annan, 2009).
It is for this reason that the Ongwen trial is so important for the realm of international justice. While most will focus on the issues of child soldiering related to the trial, few are speaking about the leap forward it has made in prosecuting all sexual and gender based crimes, including the less known crimes of forced marriage and forced pregnancy. Yet these crimes are incredibly complex, for their purpose as a strategy of war, the damage they have on victims, and for the difficulties they pose in reintegration within a traditional, patriarchal society. If we truly explore the impact of these crimes on the girls and women of Uganda, and in the context of the strategies implored by the LRA, we can begin to comprehend the significance of this trial in the fight against all sexual and gender based crimes. The Ongwen case sends an important message to victims, that they are indeed victims, and to communities, that this is a criminal act not to be tolerated. One can only hope this begins to curve the discrimination and victim-blaming experienced by so many, in one of the longest running civil conflicts in the world.
Akello, G. (2013). Experiences of forced mothers in northern Uganda: the legacy of
war. Intervention, 11(2), 149-156.
Annan, et al. (2009). Women and Girls at War: ‘Wives’, Mothers and Fighters in the Lord’s
Resistance Army. Unpublished manuscript. Retrieved September 28, 2009.
Carlson, K & Mazurana, D (2008) Forced Marriage within the Lord’s Resistance Army, Uganda.
Feinstein International Centre
Finnström, S. (2008). Living with bad surroundings. War, History, and Everyday Moments in
The Guardian (2016) “Ex-Child Soldier Dominic Ongwen Denies War Crimes at ICC Trial” available
Kramer, S. (2012) Forced marriage and the Absence of Gang Rape: Explaining Sexual Violence by
the Lords Resistance Army in Northern Uganda. Columbia University Academic Commons
LRA Crisis Tracker (2015) Available at: https://www.lracrisistracker.com/
Migration Policy (2005) Surrounded: Women and Girls in Northern Uganda. Available at:
Wood, E. (2015). Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and the Policy Implications of Recent Research.
The International Review of the Red Cross No. 894.
< All Blog Posts