Five female former child soldiers from Uganda came to the United Nations today to draw attention to the plight of the some 250,000 boys and girls who are currently being used as child soldiers around the world.
Jennifer Achora, 22, Milly Auma, 29, Nighty Acheng, 28, Sarah Ayero, 28, and Maurine Akello, 18 were each kidnapped by Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Now they lead “Empowering Hands,” a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Gulu, Uganda. They work to reintegrate escaped and freed abductees soldiers into their communities, and have helped at least 1,000 former child soldiers.
“I went to the Lord’s Resistance Army and suffered there,” Ms. Akello said today at a meeting with Rachel Mayanja, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Adviser on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women. “Then I came back home and, fortunately, Empowering Hands came. I got a lot from the group – counselling and friends to share experiences with.”
Empowering Hands was doing an extremely important job on the ground, she said, but it lacked the capacity to deal with the scale of the problem. Ms. Akello called on the UN to help the NGO extend its programmes by providing training and funding.
“We have gained a lot of hope from Empowering Hands and we hope others will gain in their lives,” she said.
Ms. Achora said Empowering Hands was unique. “We are very young women, but the kind of work we are doing is enormous,” she said. “Other organizations have tried, but failed to do this. One needs the right experience – to know the feelings of the people who have been through such things to speak to them.”
The NGO trains abductees to counsel others – both former soldiers and those in the communities they return to – about their experiences. When women return home they face stigmatization and rejection because of what they endured. They often come back to find that their parents are gone and that they have responsibility, not only for their own children, but for the brothers and sisters that were left behind.
“You are now role models for other girls in Uganda and for girls all over the world,” Ms. Mayanja told the five. “What you have experienced in going to be with you for the rest of your lives. But you have managed to turn your experiences into a positive thing for others. Violence again women is a worldwide problem – it is not just in Uganda. And we all have to join forces to fight this scourge."
“We should listen to the girls; we shouldn’t dictate to them,” she said. “We should listen to what to do about violence so that we may have peace.”
Nearly a third of child soldiers in northern Uganda are female and women in conflict zones face gender-specific issues, such as rape and torture. Empowering Hands helps women who on average are aged between 20 and 25 and have been in the bush for six years. Many are kidnapped when they are still at school, yet they return to their communities with children of their own.
On 8 November, the five will meet with Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict.
The event was sponsored by Glamour Magazine. To benefit their NGO, Glamour Magazine will launch the Women of the Year Fund Initiative, which will allow the magazine’s 12 million readers to contribute to charities supported by the Fund. Empowering Hands will be the Fund’s debut honouree.