War Child’s Approach: In the Field and Raising Awareness

June 5: We went to Kitgum today, located about 100 km north of Gulu, where War Child Canada (WCC) has a satellite office, and met the team there (a short aside: all the members of WCC in Uganda as well as the Ugandans in general were very warm and welcoming. Jimmy and I have picked up the Ugandan handshake!). Our day was spent experiencing one of the key aspects of War Child Canada’s access to justice process: awareness raising meetings. A bit of context before going into the details of WCC’s work in Uganda: The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) ravaged northern Uganda over a period of about twenty years, forcing more than 1.7 million people into refugee camps and decimating the population. Women and children bore the brunt of this conflict suffering rape, mutilation, brutality, kidnappings, etc. The promiscuity of camp life did nothing to improve the situation. Rebels, army members and civilians were all equally likely aggressors. The conflict ended in 2006 but life is still far from normal. The behaviours learned during wartime have not been completely forgotten. War Child Canada’s work in Uganda is focused on making justice accessible to women and children affected by violence, whether it be conjugal and sexual violence, child abuse or abandonment. Access to justice is difficult for rural populations. A woman who wants to file a complaint against a husband who has abandoned her and her children without resources must walk to the closest police station, which may be 2 or 3 days away on foot. During this time, who will look after the children? A judicial proceeding can require multiple trips to meet police, lawyers and appear in court, all of which increase the difficulty of filing a complaint. In addition, it is generally expected that you pay meals for the underpaid police officers involved—a polite way to say that you have to bribe them. To top it all off, there are the legal fees, which are simply unaffordable for most people. These major obstacles come on top of a judicial system that is currently overwhelmed and a population whose level of education and legal knowledge is generally quite limited. For example, there are still many people in Uganda who do not realize that wife beating is an imprisonable offence. WCC runs free legal clinics in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader (a fourth office in Lira has just closed due to lack of funding). As we have seen yesterday, the people who come to request support are greeted respectfully and professionally. WCC covers transportation costs, coordinates files, manages expectations with regard to judicial system delays and often refers people to medical or mental health resources. Where possible, WCC favours mediation and family reconciliation. When mediation fails, or in cases of rape or aggravated assault, judicial proceedings are undertaken. This is all well and good, but the residents of all these rural areas still need to know that War Child Canada services are available to them. WCC has developed an approach that delivers excellent results. Liaison agents hold meetings all over the territory in order to help people better understand the law and the recourse available to them. This afternoon, Jimmy, Gabrielle and I went to the sub-county of Labongo Amida where one of these meetings was being held. Gathered under the shade of a large tree, about a hundred residents of the surrounding area had come to talk to Joseph and Lilianne of WCC. The Local Council (LC), equivalent to a mayor, and local police officers were also present. Joseph, a real pro, started a discussion about conjugal violence. While somewhat reserved at the start, the participants did respond and identify the underlying causes of conjugal violence. An honest, lively and good-humoured dialogue began and went on for some time. Following refreshments (Coca-Cola and Fanta are really popular in Uganda), Lilianne continued by explaining the law and what WCC can do if needed. The crowd’s reaction was positive and they requested that similar meetings be held elsewhere in the district. Benson told us that this was a small group because it was currently sowing season and many people were working in the fields. At other times, the groups can number up to 300 people.    The WCC team will follow up with these people in a few weeks to ensure that the message has been received. The work of volunteers, which Jimmy talked about yesterday, will be crucial in encouraging those who need help to go to a WCC office. Tomorrow is Wednesday, which has been set aside for sight-seeing. We will be visiting Murchison Falls, a major Ugandan tourist attraction. Benson, our amazing chauffeur, worked there for a number of years before joining WCC so I think we will be in good hands.

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