Former Girl Soldiers Bringing Hope To Their Peers In Uganda

New York, 9 November 2007 – More than 250,000 child soldiers are still embroiled in conflicts across the globe today. But it was the fate of girls in particular which was under the spotlight when five former girl soldiers came to speak to Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, at UN Headquarters in New York. The five women, all aged between 20 and 28– Jennifer Achora, Milly Auma, Nighty Acheng, Sarah Ayero and Maurine Akello — were each kidnapped in their teens by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. Now they lead "Empowering Hands", an NGO based in Gulu, Uganda which is helping to reintegrate escaped and freed abductees back into their communities. Nearly one third of child soldiers in Northern Uganda are female and especially vulnerable. They may be victims of sexual violence and exploitation, but are also increasingly being recruited into fighting forces. Community-based and peer-to-peer programmes for children previously associated with armed groups such as "Empowering Hands" are crucial to facilitate the reintegration of child soldiers. Yet the plight of girls is often overlooked. Many are unwilling to come forward in the first place because communities ostracize girls due to their association with rebel groups and the stigma of having been raped. In many conflict situations, commanders hold them captive as 'wives', and too often, they become pregnant. The women from "Empowering Hands" emphasized the problems they face caring for their own "children born of war." Ms. Achora, who was taken by the LRA in 1996 at the age of 12, described how mothers are struggling once they return to their communities: "Our children have no fathers. We, the women have to do everything, such as feeding and educating them. We don't have the capacities or the resources to assume all the responsibilities. We can not even go back to school ourselves." The five women called on the international community to do more to help former child soldiers, especially girls and young women, to reintegrate into normal life. They also stressed that peace and forgiveness were key in Uganda and called for the world to pay greater attention to those working on the ground. "The UN and the people of the world should listen to us; the people living in the camps, the grassroots. We are tired and want this to come to an end", Ms. Achora said. Ms Coomaraswamy recognized that "more should be done for the children of former abductees, the so-called children of war". She pledged her support to "Empowering Hands", which has already helped at least one thousand former child soldiers. She also said that she would seek support among members of the UN system to further aid the work of the organization. "In all our work our happiest moments are seeing child soldiers who have picked up their lives and helped others," Ms Coomaraswamy said. "You are all a source of hope and inspiration to us." The October 2006 Secretary-General's Study "Ending Violence Against Women: From Words to Action" provides information on progress in countries in identifying indicators to combat violence against women including rape, sexual exploitation, abduction, trafficking and other grave violations. In addition to the Secretary-General's study, General Assembly Resolution 61/143 of 19 December 2006, entitled "Intensification of efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women," also serves to support these ongoing efforts by member-states. Glamour Magazine recognized the five at its annual "Women of the Year Celebration" at Avery Fisher Hall on November 5. Every year Glamour hosts the Women of the Year Awards to honour interesting and courageous women who are changing the world in important ways. To benefit "Empowering Hands," Glamour Magazine will also launch the Women of the Year Fund Initiative, which will allow the magazine's 12 million readers to contribute to charities supported by the Fund. "Empowering Hands" will be the debut honoree of the Fund. For more information on this issue, visit: http://www.glamour.com/news/woty_fund