Ugandan child mothers pick up the pieces
ATIAK, UGANDA - Twenty-eight-year-old Beatrice Akello has been praised for her beauty her entire life. As a child growing up in Atiak, Uganda, elderly women in the village would pinch her smooth cheeks as she walked by, her long silky black hair always tied with bright ribbon. She loved the attention -- until she was abducted by rebels with the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, in 1995.
In captivity in Sudan, she was kept segregated from men until she got her first period at age 13. Then she was forced to marry a 30-year-old rebel. She was the first girl picked from a group of dozens.
"I never loved him," she tells me. "Because I feared for my life I had to accept."
Beatrice was one of seven wives, all physically and emotionally abused at the hands of their husband.
"If I refused to sleep with him he would beat me seriously. Or just rape me. He said I was the most beautiful so he gave me the most attention. I wished I was ugly."
Against her wishes, she would bear two children with him in captivity.
Famished and desperate in the jungle, Beatrice told the commander the women in the village were starving to death. The rebels released her, along with several other child mothers. Her youngest child was two.
Like thousands of other Ugandan girls who were raped and subsequently had children in captivity, Beatrice found herself back in her homeland without an education, ostracized from her community and not accepted because of her "rebel children." One community elder went out of his way to slap her child every time he saw the youngster on his way to school. She was devastated, but knew she wasn't alone.
"There were so many child mothers," she says. "All with broken hearts. All alone."
In Pictures: Uganda's child mothers
Christine Oroma, a community development worker with World Vision, says formerly abducted women are highly stigmatized by their community when they return home. Girls who give birth in captivity suffer twice as much.
"To have a child outside of marriage is bad, to have one with a rebel is even worse," she says. "Most women live on their own -- in constant fear."
Even if they find a new husband, they are unlikely to find happiness.
"Most don't have a good relationship with their new husbands. The children are a burden to them -- and are hardly ever accepted by their new father," Oroma says. "Mothers can't pay for their kids to go to school so the cycle of poverty continues."
All alone with no income, Beatrice took out a $200 loan from World Vision in 2008 to buy three sewing machines and selected a group of child mothers to start making clothing to generate income so they didn't need to rely on men and could independently support their children.
She now runs the Lacan Pe Nino Child Mother's Association (LPNCA), a school program run from a one-room warehouse that used to store cotton in the 1970s. Of the 21 child mothers, only one says her partner approves.
"I think the men are just jealous," Beatrice says. "We just want to work hard. We missed the chance to go to school. We are finally making a difference in our own lives. Even if it's just a small group at least it's a start."
A growing movement
In a country where mass rape and forced marriage have been common tactics of war for the Lord's Resistance Army for more than two decades, there is a growing group of formerly abducted women now free from their abductors who are rebuilding their lives as single mothers -- without depending on men.
For Akot Florence, the road to independence began with something as small as learning to count to 10. Returning home from the jungle at 17 with two small children, she found her offspring stigmatized while she herself was left unmarried and unloved, with no man willing to be with her because of her "rebel children."
"Each time I hear this I am broken," Akot tells me.
She opened a small convenience store in Kalongo, a city perched on the side of a mountain north of Gulu, buying large quantities of produce and selling it back to villagers at a profit. But because she couldn't read the money she had no idea what she was making, or more accurately, how much she was losing. Things changed when she joined a mothers' group and learned to read and write. The classes allowed her to open a savings account and do her own accounting.
"People would cheat me because I couldn't read. Now no one cheats me," she says with a smile.
Pader Girls Academy
To put it lightly, the dorms are crowded at the Pader Girls Academy. Each of the two converted warehouses sleeps 120 female students in tightly packed rows of narrow metal bunk beds, some three beds high. There are also 60 babies that sleep alongside their mothers. The night I visit the facility, I conservatively estimate half are crying at the same time.
"You're lucky," school director Alice Achan tells me in her office on a Monday morning. "All of the children aren't here right now. Every student has a child. Some just leave them at home with parents and grandparents."
The academy was founded as a catering and tailoring school in 2008 with 35 young girls from Pader city, most of whom missed receiving any formal education because of being abducted by the LRA and becoming parents at a young age. In just two years, that number ballooned to 240.
"If you bring a girl in that's pregnant pretty soon you have two people," Achan jokes. "The school got big fast."
The school recently added high school classes and bakery training, its cinnamon buns and dense sugar cookies now sold at a shop in town to help the girls pay their tuition -- about $100 a year.
The school was started as a way to help out girls running child-headed households who missed educational opportunities because of the war. Targeting the most vulnerable girls in the community, the school provides counselling, medical care -- even shoes.
"If we don't support these girls they are lost," Achan says. "Many girl-headed households have up to five children. The impact of the war has hurt so much."
In the short term, the school hopes to get the girls job placements or help them open their own businesses. The aim is to get them into the school before people start taking advantage of them -- if that hasn't happened already.
"Men use them sexually under the guise of providing for their family. They are so vulnerable they don't know the difference," Achan says.
Of the 18 vocational and school teachers here, the majority are women, and it's no accident. Many young girls going to public school get involved with male teachers and there are often instances of sexual abuse, with many girls impregnated.
How to save a life
When catering student Esther Anying greets me outside of the main kitchen, flour falls off her hands.
Feeding her three-week-old baby, Alex Odong, in the shade of a tree, the 23-year-old lights up into a huge gap-toothed smile when she talks about her schooling. She loves it here so much, in fact, she came back to school only a week after having Alex.
"I had two weeks off but I couldn't wait. I just couldn't wait," she tells me.
Rubbing her closely cropped hair, Anying says she was terrified to join the school when she was pregnant because she didn't think she'd be accepted -- but all of the students supported her.
She was a housewife before she arrived. At 19 she had twins, but they both died at childbirth. She casts her eyes to the ground when she talks about her husband.
"The baby's father has another woman. We don't live together."
She tells me she would stay with him as long as she's recognized as the primary wife.
Anying admits she doesn't like the situation but says she'd rather stay with a partner who's cheating than leave because of the risk of HIV -- what she and the other students call "the sickness." She plans on having her partner tested for HIV after school lets out for the term. If he fails, she's leaving.
"I don't want another man if this one goes," she says, smiling again. "Too much work. Plus, I'll have my own job."
Ending the cycle
The few students here without children seem to have learned a lot of from their peers.
Pauline Akello, who didn't return to school after grade nine because she couldn't pay her fees, tells me coming to the academy has helped her self esteem, not to mention her status in the community.
"When you are not educated people look down on you. People in the village now respect me."
Akello, who wants to be a police officer, says she'll make different life choices as a result of being a witness to the struggles of her classmates.
"I don't want to have children before I'm married. I don't want my children to suffer. I want to achieve."
It is the vulnerability of these girls that make them the perfect recipients for help, says Joseph Akol of World Vision.
"They're the ones that can break the cycle of poverty, sadness, intolerance. They can do it – and we're seeing that today," he tells me, adding that girls are most likely to pass on assistance to others.
"When you help one you help another six."
Darcy Wintonyk travelled to Uganda on a fellowship funded by the Canadian International Development Agency and administered through the Jack Webster Foundation.