Stigmatization of Former Child Soldiers

“The war is still there in our heads. It affects us so much but we are not allowed to talk about it. Sometimes we wish to, even though it is very painful to talk about what had happened.” – Student from Kitgum district, Uganda

By Anita Wolber and Alex Comninos

An estimated 30,000 to 60,000 youths in northern Uganda were abducted and forced to fight in the two-decade-long conflict, mainly for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).1 Half of them were gone for at least four months.2

In a previous study comparing the mental health of 500 former abductees to 500 non-abductees, the two groups seemed similar.3 However, about a sixth of the former abductees who experienced severe violence showed symptoms of distress. This shows that they vary in social-psychological well-being after returning to their communities.

Nonetheless, the stigma experienced by former abductees—being labelled as a “soldier for the LRA”—is constant. The label often evokes fear and distrust, since people tend to assume that former abductees are immoral, dangerous, and infected with HIV. Interviews and focus groups with formerly abducted students revealed that they were subjected to insults such as: “You are immoral, unethical, stubborn, and you bring your war-mentality here.”

Former abductees are associated with evil spirits. One of them, for instance, stated, “When I returned to school, no one wanted to be with me. They said that I am a murderer and that I am possessed with bad spirits.”

Girls and young women who returned from the LRA were negatively stereotyped. Some of them returned with a child. Such children are stigmatized as “children from the bush.”

Stigmatization involves five components – labeling, stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination.4 Low status and discrimination exclude one from social, economic, and political power.5

Stigmatizing former abductees jeopardizes their psychological adjustment and reintegration.6 However, few reintegration programs have focused on the impact of stigma on their reintegration.

The Amnesty Act of 2000 stipulated that everyone (including even high ranking commanders) who put down their arms would be free from criminal prosecution.7 This was generally welcomed as a peacebuilding strategy. The reintegration of people who had not been only victims but also perpetrators presents a challenge. Is justice possible for victims when peace is also a priority? How can justice be achieved when so many perpetrators are also victims? It is impossible to resolve these challenges in the interests of forgiveness and reconciliation without addressing stigma.

Teachers are responsible for educating and imparting knowledge to their students, but they are also crucial in reintegration and peace-building. Teachers change mindsets and help weave and reinforce the moral fabric of societies where peace is fragile. It is important to consider their contribution to these larger goals by the way they address the stigmatization of former abductees.

Challenges for teachers

Our research was conducted in secondary schools in Kitgum, northern Uganda. We examined the stigma of former abductees, and the roles that school teachers play in addressing it. We became aware that the teachers face enormous challenges, including insufficient training in the reintegration of formerly abducted students. Teachers also are hampered by low societal status, and their own traumatic experiences during the conflict. This raises questions as to the capacity of teachers to address these issues.

Teachers in the Kitgum district are very poorly paid; the conflict has weakened their economic situations. Many teachers are responsible for their own children, and also for extended families. As one teacher stated, “I have to take care of the children of my younger brother, who died during the war. I have to pay school fees, for example.” Many teachers cannot afford to send their own children to school, and this affects their performance. One teacher stated, “Of course it affects my motivation if I have to teach other parents’ children while my own have to stay at home.”

Another explained, “Many good teachers have gone from teaching. Others joined politics or business, others are teaching now in Rwanda or Sudan, where conditions are much better.” Teachers who decide to remain in schools often have to find other jobs to supplement their income. The most common are selling vegetables, driving the boda boda (motorcyle taxis), or running a small shop. A song called “Embooko” (which means teacher), by popular music artist Edie Kigere, portrays teachers as poor and alcoholic. A teacher explained the lyrics: “You have a degree, but you are still poor, you can only afford 500 Ugandan shilling airtime.”8

Psychological trauma is also a factor. Many teachers themselves were victims of the LRA, either through their own abduction or through the loss of family members, such as their own children. Schools were a popular spot for the LRA to abduct children, and teachers were in the position of protectors. They were seen by the LRA as allies of the government and were thus a main target. To scare teachers out of protecting their students, the LRA used cruel tactics. One social worker for an international NGO explained that, “to show their enormous power [the LRA] killed many teachers, or they made teachers kill or-in better words-slaughter them.” One teacher stated, “I witnessed the slaughtering and eating of human flesh. Our school was confronted in an ambush and later on teachers were cooked in a pot. Around 17 people died that day. We had to eat them and if you refused you had to join them in the pot.”

Some teachers were abducted by the LRA. One teacher said, “I was abducted when I was 13 years old and I stayed until I was 16.”

The great majority of teachers (95%) we surveyed stated that they felt that they themselves needed counseling. A psychologist from an international NGO explained: “Teachers are highly traumatized, but the government does not put effort into them. If a natural disaster happened the first thing we would do would be to heal the doctor so he can heal other patients. This how it should be in education. Heal the teacher and he can heal the next generation.”

Teachers need counseling if they are to address the stigmatization of former abductees and facilitate forgiveness, reconciliation, and peacebuilding. The majority of teachers in the Acholi sub-region lost family members to the LRA. How can they address these tasks without having an opportunity to reflect on their traumatic experiences with the help of a professional counselor or psychologist?

Stigma perceived by formerly abducted students

Interviews with former abductees revealed that they are stigmatized by teachers and other prominent persons. One such student stated: “Many bad things happened during the war, and some teachers blame it on us.” Focus group discussions with formerly abducted students revealed that they were subjected to harsh accusations.

Stigmatization of former abductees was entrenched. One teacher revealed that, “This school has a good reputation. Our performance is not bad, We can almost compete with [more privileged] schools from the south [of Uganda, not affected by the war]. Former abductees do not belong here, NGOs brought them here, because they pitied them, but they should not be at a school which is so competitive. They are not here on their own merit.”

Problems with reintegration programs in secondary schools

Some assistance is given to primary school teachers in the reintegration of formerly abducted students. This is based on the assumption that a student who is successfully reintegrated at the primary school level will also eventually reintegrate at the secondary level. However, there are special challenges of stigmatization and rejection in secondary schools.

There is a plethora of programs offered by NGOs and their donors to sponsor former abductees with material support, such as the provision of school fees, pocket money, mattresses, school materials and transport fares.9

Unfortunately, this material approach has had unintended consequences. One formerly abducted student said that teachers “tell us that we were just lucky because the NGOs gave us a sponsorship, but we actually did not deserve it.”

A teacher reflected on these problems.

“The NGOs came here and sponsored even the ones who committed the atrocities. Can you imagine what this created among students? We had students here whose family members have been victims of returnees who are here at the same school. Imagine returnees coming back and getting sponsorships, and students who lost her parents getting nothing!”

Fights about scholarships and other material benefits became daily problems-among students and also among schools. Schools exaggerated the numbers of former abductees in order to receive more material support than other schools. Students falsely claimed to have been abducted to receive sponsorships. For many students it seemed as if formerly abducted students were rewarded for being with the LRA. As one student said, “Many NGOs and researchers came to support those former abductees, but they never came to us, nor did we get any assistance.” The focus on only former abductees has caused jealousy among other neglected war-affected students, reinforcing stigmatization.

The numbers of formerly abducted students were either exaggerated by schools or by students themselves in order to receive material benefits. The sponsorship that formerly abducted students received compromised the confidentiality of the formerly abducted status of many children. As one teacher explained, “The well-intended approaches of NGOs turned into a disaster. They wrote lists about who was abducted and these lists were spread around the school.”

Stigmatization increased the high drop-out rates of returnees. One teacher stated, “We had to dismiss some in order to maintain the general peace in our school. Other students dropped out voluntarily. They could not stand the school environment anymore. One after the other were just jumping over the fence and never returned.”

Better approaches

The Ugandan government has recognized the need for psycho-social support and the need to address stigma of former abductees and has implemented a course called Guidance and Counselling for teachers in their training. The course focuses mainly on career planning and needs to deal more explicitly with stigmatization. Moreover, as this course was only implemented in universities in 2008, there are many teachers in the school system who have not taken it. There needs to be more investment in training for peacebuilding and reconciliation nationwide. Misconceptions about former abductees and Northerners in general could be addressed. Secondary and primary schools alike need to be given attention.

Anita Wolber is a graduate of the University of Amsterdam, Graduate School of Social Sciences. She conducted three-month fieldwork for her Master’s dissertation in the Kitgum district in northern Uganda. Alex Comninos is a researcher and DAAD Scholar at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany.

Notes

1 Children were abducted to a lesser extent by the national army, the Uganda People’s Defence Force, and Local Defence Units. Children abducted by the UPDF were used for gathering intelligence and for identifying LRA positions and weapons caches. (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Global Report 2008, Available at: http://www.childsoldiersglobalreport.org/content/uganda. Accessed on: 29 January 2012)

2 Blattman, Christopher and Annan, Jeannie (2008) “Child combatants in northern Uganda: Reintegration myths and realities.” In Muggah, Robert. (ed.) Security and Post-Conflict Reconstruction: Dealing with Fighters in the Aftermath of War. London: Routledge, pp. 103 -126; Blattman, Christopher and Annan, Jeannie (2010) “The Consequences of Child Soldiering.“The Review of Economics and Statistics 92(4), pp. 882-898.

3 Blattmann and Anan (2008), op cit.

4 Link, Bruce G. and Phelan, Jo C. (2001) Conceptualizing Stigma. Annual Review of Sociology 27, pp. 363-385.

5 Fraser, Nancy (2005) “Reframing justice in a globalising world.” New Left Review 36, pp. 69-88.

6 Betancourt, Theresa S., Agnew-Blais, Jessica., Gilman, Stephen E., Williams, David R. and Ellis, B. Heidi (2009). “Past horrors, present struggles: The role of stigma in the association between war experiences and psychosocial adjustment among former child soldiers in Sierra Leone.” Social Science and Medicine 70, pp. 17-26.

7 Mallinder, Louise (2009). Uganda at a Crossroads: Narrowing the Amnesty?, Working Paper No. 1 From Beyond Legalism: Amnesties, Transition and Conflict Transformation, Queen’s University Belfast.

8 The song is so popular that there are many covers and remixes. A remix of the song by “Master Blaster” (with explanatory visuals) is at http://youtube.com/watch?v=zGADg0bgDPw.

9 Blattmann and Anan (2008), op cit.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2012

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2012, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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