When I met Juliet Were in December, she said that post-conflict trauma still today, 30 years after the civil war, effects women in the Ugandan communities where she works with Isis-WICCE, Isis after the Egyptian Goddess of peace and dignity and Women International Cross-Cultural Exchange.
After several years and many meetings, one respected woman leader finally testified to health problems caused by the war. All present women, long-standing colleagues and friends, were shocked that this only came out after so many years and so many opportunities when many women had already publicly witnessed about their sufferings. A fistula causes leakage of feces or urine and can be a result of sexual violence. The woman survivor will find herself insecure, smelling, not able to go out in public, not organizing her life nor working to provide for her children. The socio-economic consequences are enormous and carried over to both children and grand-children. To take up a public position, perhaps as an elected representative is so much less likely with experiences of shame and guilt. It is so stigmatizing to be the survivor of sexual or gender-based violence that it took the respected woman leader nearly a decade to speak up in front of her friends and feminist colleagues.
In Uganda Isis -WICCE was part of setting up Situation Rooms. Violence has often erupted around elections, both during campaigning when rivaling parties hinder their competition to reach their constituency, and on the actual election days. Vote-buying has been reported and voters have been threatened and beaten when they have opposed a certain party in power. As Isis-WICCE has experience in working for reconciliation but also in preventing violence and armed conflict, it came natural to work for safe and democratic election processes where women have a role to play and enjoy the same rights as men. The Situation Room was developed after the Nigerian model and contained public information about how free and fair elections will be held and where to report when this is threatened. A hotline was established and there were women election observers. Cooperation with international and national CSOs and collaboration with government institutions hindered several outbreaks of violence. Women and the public were safer.
Uganda’s National Action Plan for 1325, Women, Peace and Security was adopted in 2008 and the country had a progressive view on women in political leadership, one of the first African countries with a woman vice-president. However, Juliet Were and her colleagues have a big task to protect and promote women’s rights in a post-conflict country, scarred by trauma and by lack of trust. Their approach of cross-cultural dialogue, reading signals of early warnings, with one ear on the ground and the other ear high up in the echelons of power, will get more security and justice to women. It was an inspiring meeting with Juliet and I will take her teachings with me back to Stockholm, to our office, the new interns, board trainees for 2018, volunteers, audiences, lots of international partnerships and our experienced board. In 2018 we will continue to work and support Women, Peace and Security!