17 May Identity Denial: Uganda’s Clanless and Communityless Children
[Stephen A. Lamony is an International Lawyer.]
The aftermath of Dominic Ongwen’s case, from his conviction to his sentence to his defense counsel’s certain appeal, presents clear challenges for clans and communities in northern Uganda. In February 2021, the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Public Information and Outreach Section (PIOS) published an impact report on the Ongwen verdict. Among other concerns raised in the report typical for every case, the report also found that the conflict in Acholi uniquely and negatively impacted children. Clans discriminated against children born of war to fathers who are rebels or rebel commanders, denying these children clan identities and disinheriting them from their families’ land. This unique concern presents a dilemma to the Ugandan government, clans, and communities in Acholi. Based on research and conversations I’ve had with experts and victims’ advocates, there is much more the Ugandan government can do to support children born of war.
The Acholi community is patriarchal. A person becomes a clan member at birth from the father’s side. In exceptional circumstances, such as when a child is born in war and is fatherless, the child becomes a member of the mother’s clan and the mother’s brother, the child’s uncle provides for the nephew. Thus, children born of war would, under Acholi culture, become a member of the mother’s clan. However, where the circumstances of a child’s birth leads a mother’s clan to reject a child, that child has no clan or community, which has consequences for children’s present and future.
In February 2022, I interviewed Dr. Ketty Anyeko, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, and Mr. Ambrose Olaa, Prime Minister of Ker Kwaro Acholi (KKA), to ask why clans are so quick to reject children whose fathers are rebels of war. There are three main reasons: children being seen as “tainted” by their relation to their father, poverty, and changes in community support for children.
First, communities see these children and their mothers as tainted, unstable, or having evil or vengeful spirits because of their father’s actions during the war. Second, families struggle to care for these children because the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)-Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) war left Acholi families struggling to make ends meet. In the absence of government support, paying bills and providing for children’s food, health and housing became more difficult. Third, the war put young people in positions of community leadership, leading to a hybrid between traditional and contemporary systems that disrupted communal systems of care. This left many children without the community care they otherwise would have had.
Children born in war attest to their lived experiences of rejection. One child, who I will call Anindo, explained, “One of the greatest problems we face as children born in the LRA captivity is identity crisis coupled with rejections….Nobody wants us, and we have nowhere to belong. While some returned home with their mothers, many of us got back with nowhere to go. We neither know our parents and lines of linage nor clans, so we are in the middle of nowhere.”
Another child, who I will call Adida, said, “It looks like we don’t matter anymore, and maybe we should have died in the bush instead…how can the whole government and communities forget and neglect us like this? I came back thinking life would be better. However, the reverse is accurate, and our life is destroyed with no education and livelihood, including social rejection from all corners.”
There is no intentional government program to support these children and their families.
According to Joanne Neenan, there are still no state-level policies or programs to address the specific needs of children born in captivity or those who are “forced mothers.” (p. 39)
Ker Kwaro is a cultural institution designed to promote and protect cultural heritage in Acholiland and two views exist among the Acholi people I spoke to on what Ker Kwaro is doing or is not doing to assist the children and their mothers. Some people think that Ker Kwaro is involved in family reunions. Ambrose Olaa told me, “Ker Kwaro’s power is voluntary. We provide information and guidance on where things are going. We leave the rest to the people. ”
Dr. Anyeko commented, “I am not aware of any specific activities or programs that Ker Kwaro is implementing. I know they are aware of the problem, but they may have limited funding and resources to address the plight of the children and women.”
The rejection of children by clans is not unique to Uganda. After conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, and the Balkans, communities also children born in war. Unfortunately, there have not been enough lessons learned.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), one of the most ratified human rights treaties of which Uganda is a state party, sets out four core principles for children’s rights. These principles are the right to non-discrimination (Article 2), prioritizing children’s best interests (Article 3), the right to survival and development (Article 6), and the right of children to express their views (Article 12).
Additionally, the Convention further states that every child (defined as any person under 18 under the Convention, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and the Ugandan Children Act) has a right to identity from birth, family unity, alternative care where parental care is unavailable, and protection from abuse and neglect.
The rejection of children of war and the denial of their identity violates their rights. Rejection, either directly or through discrimination against their mothers, leaves children without family or community, and without an identity at birth, thus discriminating against these children based on their family status. The Ugandan government has ratified and is bound by all these treaties. Yet for children born to the rebels of war in Uganda, their rejection by their clans and the resulting consequences for children’s safety and future violate these fundamental rights. And by failing to develop systems of support for these children, the government has failed to primarily consider these children’s best interests and advance their right to survival and development, instead leaving them in poverty and without access to education, nutrition, and gainful employment.
No one is at fault for the circumstances of children born in war but the perpetrators of the war, but that does not mean that these children should live a lesser life. These children have rights to non-discrimination, identity, and a thriving family life—rights that the Ugandan government is obligated to provide.
Children of war in Uganda have offered solutions to ensure they have a place in society. Anindo, quoted earlier, says the Uganda government “needs to urgently pass out the National Transitional Justice Policy lying in parliament for all these years and start implementing it. That is our only hope; otherwise, we are on our own, and nobody seems to care as the gun is now silent.”
Adida, the second child interviewed, stated teary-eyed, “The government needs to act responsibly, and meaningfully reintegrate us otherwise the future is doom and country is sitting on a time bomb that can explode anytime.”
Clans, community leaders, and governments must take steps to support children born of war. For example, Ker Kwaro Acholi should partner with key stakeholders, including local and UN agencies, to address issues of children of war that cut across identity, child tracing and reunions, and psychosocial or other mental health remedies. In addition, policy and other enabling law implementation should prioritize remedies that address issues of children of war and women and other victims of conflict-related sexual violence. The government should also enforce the UNCRC and implement special remedies or programs for children born in the war, which may include but not be limited to scholarships, life skills vocational training programs, and the right to identity.