A Making All Voices Count initiative
“This is the Gulu you used to read about in the newspapers.” The Mayor emphasized the great progress that has been made in Gulu since the formal cessation of armed conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government around a decade ago. The positive changes which have unfolded in the intervening years have primarily been driven by local, engaged citizens, including outstanding work by People’s Voice for Peace and its founder, Rosalba Oywa.
From 26 October to 2 November a team from the ACTION Support Centre visited Uganda, traveling to Gulu and working with People’s Voice for Peace. The team met with the Justice and Reconciliation Project (a local NGO), the Municipal Development Forum and the Municipal District Council (including the Mayor), the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative, Kwa Kwero Acholi (the Cultural Institution led by the Paramount Chief), and Rubanga Matwero Youth Group.
In our conversations we heard about the importance of religious and traditional leaders. Rather than two distinct groups, the religious and traditional leaders have worked together in Northern Uganda, especially with cleansing rituals, which form the first step of reintegration for those returning from abduction and conscription. The collaboration has been essential in the ongoing recovery process.
The youth offered insight into their lives through songs which raised awareness about social challenges. They performed dances and spoke of dramas which, in addition to the songs, they use to raise public awareness and to advocate for youth concerns. They also articulated the challenge posed by the most local levels of government. Local Councils 1 and 2 have not been officially elected in several years and so their decisions can be overturned at higher levels, as the formal legality of their decisions can be nullified in the courts. These government leaders, which are the most accessible to the youth, are limited in their capacities by the lack of recent local elections, which disempowers the local communities.
After our meetings, representatives from each of the parties joined in a one-day workshop where we discussed trust, power, communication, tools for communication, and relationships between parties through conflict analysis tools. Among the key insights were: trust is based in relationships, and relationships are based on face to face communication (SMSs are used to arrange meetings for serious conversations); the violence of war has carried over into other arenas of society; while trust has grown at the local level, especially between religious and traditional leaders, a gap remains between local and national governance, a gap which some participants said was also present during the armed conflict between the national government and the LRA; radio was identified as a critical tool in communication.
Our meeting with the Justice and Reconciliation Project reflected some of the important learning that was reaffirmed in the workshop. They shared about the way they addressed a distinct challenge. Women and girls were not spared from any violence during the war, nor have they been immune from violence afterwards. In fact, the young women from the youth group shared quite directly with us about being raped and falling pregnant as a result of rape. The Justice and Reconciliation Project supported a small group of women, who formed a steering committee, which led to other groups forming in other parishes, who comprised the Women’s Advocacy Network. The Women’s Advocacy Network first reached local government and, through the tremendous efforts of its members, now has a widely supported petition before the Ugandan Parliament. As the Project Coordinator explained, “[The Justice and Reconciliation Project] feels small, but when we join with other CSOs we become bigger and louder.” These women, engaged citizens, are transforming conflict and are working hard to make their voices count.