News and Articles

Combatting Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Northern Uganda

Pabbo IDP camp, northern Uganda
July 24, 2017

For almost two decades, between the late 1980s and late 2000s, Uganda’s northern region experienced a devastating civil war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and government forces. The war resulted in thousands of deaths, the destruction of families, and mass displacement, forcing many to live ininternally displaced peoples’ camps (IDPs).

The clash between the LRA and the government of Uganda led to cultural fragmentation, vulnerability to diseases, and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). The prevalence of SGBV is one of the major consequences of this conflict, with the intensity of women’s suffering fueled by the disruption of families, patriarchy, and the influence of culture.

During an internship I did in 2015, I met Maria, a 21 year-old single mother and victim of sexual violence in Pabbo camp in Northern Uganda. Maria reported that she had been sexually abused by several men, resulting in her not knowing the father of her child. According to her, women have to suffer silently because “they will still need men’s protection anyway.” Maria’s case demonstrates that patriarchy still greatly influences the treatment of women in the region.

From the community’s perspective in the camp, SGBV is considered a “normal” occurrence. According to a report by UNICEF, 70 out of 100 respondents interviewed were unaware of national legislation and procedures to combat SGBV. Moreover, women and girls face a greater risk of violence than men, with research showing that 6 out of 10 women in Pabbo camp have been abused. Women are often attacked as they walk far from their homes searching for firewood, water, and food, as was the case for Maria. This kind of violence has led to miscarriages and unsafe abortions, especially involving young women.

It is paramount that, when working with victims of SGBV, whether locally or internationally, that the fundamental principles of human rights be a guiding tool for programming and practice. These ensure that women’s rights are given maximum consideration. In addition, effective psychological intervention should be holistic in nature, and integrated with wider efforts towards other economic, social, and political reconstruction.

As girls are the most vulnerable community exposed to SGBV in Uganda, the government should provide assistance to their families to support their health, social needs, and welfare. For example, young girls should be assisted in attending school and young women in doing vocational training. Strategies for continued awareness campaigns should also be developed, though it is critical for practitioners to reflect on Western models of intervention.

Culture shapes how women respond to any experience and shapes their perception of personal responsibility; therefore, cultural sensitivity is vital. My experience meeting Maria prepared me for future challenges rooted in working with diverse populations. It is often assumed that workers coming from the same background as their clients are always better positioned to help them. However, Maria’s case proved that cultural variations are inevitable despite the parallels between a worker and client.

For more information about the issue of SGBV, please visit: