Three broad thematic areas emerged that described the sexual vulnerabilities of displaced adolescent girls: 1) Understanding the Devastation of the Present: Erosion of Cultural Processes and Belief Systems and the Collapse of Livelihood; 2) Living in ‘Double Jeopardy’: Vulnerability in the Light of Day and Vulnerability at Night, and; 3) Access to Reproductive and Sexual Health Information.
THEME I: Understanding the devastation of the present: erosion of cultural processes and belief systems and the collapse of livelihood
Through early discussions with our Acholi research team and the analysis of the data, it became clear that traditionally and in the not too distant past, Acholi girls experienced significantly high levels of personal and sexual security prior to marriage. The structured mentoring roles played by female relatives combined with belief systems that mitigated against premenstrual sex and emphasized the culturally imbued concept of personal and community consent, represented a child protection system that placed a high value on the Acholi girl’s personal and familial dignity and served to protect her sexuality.
The role of the grandmother (‘adaa’) and aunt (‘wayo’)
In-depth interviews confirmed findings from existing literature on traditional Acholi mentoring systems. Specifically, grandmothers and the huts in which they resided were pivotal in the transmission of sexual health knowledge and mentoring of young girls. While girls were indeed raised by their mothers and fathers, the grandmother (‘adaa’) played a significant role in the upbringing of female children in offering mentoring and guidance via story telling in the privacy of her own hut[24, 25]. The grandmothers generally taught the girls about men, the importance of not moving in with men before they menstruated, marriage, the clan system and incest taboos. As one girl who went through the mentoring process describes:
“We girls had a separate sleeping hut. My grandmother would come to our sleeping hut in the night. She told us how to behave and be respectful to other people. She used to tell us that a responsible girl does not answer back when she is talked to, and when she is being addressed, she sits down. If she is called she comes and kneels down, and listens to what she is told…that is what a bright girl does.” [(I) Adolescent Girl]
Similar to other Ugandan cultures, among the Acholi, intergenerational taboos exist regarding discussing sex. Mothers did not speak to their daughter’s about sex, and this role became associated with the ‘wayo’. The ‘wayo’, the father’s sister, was responsible for socialization of young girls into (proper) womanhood and assumed a sister-like role in the girl’s life. She taught her nieces about various aspects of maturing in Acholi culture, relayed sexual health information, and was expected to be a trusted secret keeper, a mentor, and confidant. As one woman describes:
“A wayo is a mentor, secret keeper at the onset of menstruation…to teach you everything … even how to have sex with your husband, because you may have grown up with ignorance. She may teach you that if you have a man and he has called you to go to his home … when you are to have sex you are to do this and that, otherwise you may not be enticing enough for him.” [(I) Adult Woman]
Premenstrual sex and the idea of consensual sex in Acholi culture
Traditionally the age of sexual debut for Acholi girls was between the ages of 16 and 18 years and could only occur after the female child had had a number of regular menstrual cycles. According to interviews with adult women, prior to the war premenstrual sex was forbidden and was the cause of much consternation and stigma for both families involved. In fact, if a child was discovered having sex prior to menstruation the incident became a kin and community issue and was dealt with in the same manner as a sexual assault that took place in the bush. Rituals would have to be involved that included compensation from the man’s family. As one woman explains:
“An appeasement ritual is performed at the spot where the rape took place. This would involve a goat (provided by the boys family) being slaughtered at the exact spot of the rape.” [(I) Adult Woman]
This ritual was justified, as it was believed that premenstrual sex was the cause of future problems with fertility for the girl who had been violated. Seen in this way, a female child’s sexual debut was culturally sanctioned and became a family/kinship issue.
When a girl had menstruated, she could begin receiving suitors. The men would first arrive at the family compound where aunties, mothers and grandmothers would determine a relationship’s potential by eliminating the possibility that the couple could be in some way related. After it was determined that a union was possible, courting could commence and eventually the suitor obtained permission to propose. However, prior to bride wealth negotiations a girl had to actually provide her consent to the relationship and to sexual relations. One woman differentiated between traditional Acholi customs related to courting and the current state of affairs in the camps:
“If a boy began to court you he had to first present himself at your home and your mother would have to see him … when you consented to a boy’s proposal it was done by giving him such articles like beads, handkerchiefs, bangles … but the girls of today they consent with their bodies … by the time you get to know your son’s fiancée he will have had relationships with many girls … In the past a boy couldn’t just come and use a girl.” [(G) Adult Women]
Parents expressed grief that adolescents would now rarely comply with them, and that they no longer observed traditional moral values including: respecting elders; protecting their virginity; abstaining from pre-marital sex and pregnancies, and; recognizing the importance of marriage. Adding to the change in behavioural norms was the powerlessness that girls and women in our study described as being associated with the congestion of IDP camp living. Displacement camp living represented to both girls and women a shift in their sexual decision-making from control and consent to passivity and acquiescence.
Collapse of livelihood
Operation Iron Fist, the military offensive against the LRA launched by the Uganda government in 2002, created circumstances where more people were displaced from traditional homesteads and interrupted significantly the households ability to generate income from the sale of harvests including groundnuts, sim-sim and maize. When families cannot dig and become completely food-aid dependant, the most vulnerable of all are the daughters. The majority of participants (76% of individual interviews) lamented the lack of meaningful agricultural production since the commencement of displacement camp living and commented that with the exception of performing casual labour for people who had access to their land, there were very few employment opportunities especially for girls and women, in or outside the camps. This lack of dynamism in IDP camp economies has kept displaced families in perpetual poverty and has led to fundamental changes in the way women and men lead their lives and provide for their families. As one participant suggests:
“Life is hard because there is hardly any means to earn income. It is because we do not have access to land due to insecurity. The land we dig, we rent or borrow but it is so little. Since there is no useful cultivation, we cannot afford to pay fees for our children, feed them and look after ourselves.” [(G) Adult Women]
Mothers reported that this inability to provide for their families left women and girls powerless and economically dependent on men, particularly adolescent girls.
“Every time you go to get water, a girl will wash herself and go to chat or stand by peoples kiosks … eventually the owner or trader in the kiosk will begin to seduce her. He will first buy for her pens, soap, books and other small presents … he will eventually ask for sex … he will say I have helped you a lot so you should also help me …they have to give him what he desires.” [(G) Adult Women]
Furthermore, the inability of families to meet the subsistence needs of their daughters was directly related to the decision of many girls to participate in ‘survival sex’, even exchanging sex for menstrual pads and biscuits. One 13-year old girl describes her experience:
“The only alternative is for you to go to a boy/man, so that he can help you with money to cater for things like clothing, food and other necessities. If you spend a night with the army officer at the barracks, the next day you will change to another man, provided he gives you some money.” [(I) Adolescent Girl]
The pain and indignity that mothers felt of being so powerless in the face of such predation was clear. Most camp residents survived on food that was supplied by the World Food Programme (WFP), and women also relied on these rations to earn some income. Mothers commented that they would either sell portions of their food rations to buy the things that their daughters felt they needed, or give rations to their daughters to sell themselves to try and prevent sex-for-exchange relationships.
“We sell part of it to buy soap, clothes and other necessities…now we are being taught that no matter how much food ration you get, you must give a little to the girls so at least she can get some money to buy herself a petticoat (skirt slip) or a panty … girls must come to us for the things they need.” [(G) Adult Women]
THEME II: Living in double jeopardy: vulnerability in the light of Day and vulnerability at night
Vulnerability in the light of day
Before the on-set of war an Acholi girl who was not in school would accompany her mother to the garden, weed and clean the garden, be involved in the harvest and storage of foodstuffs, collect firewood, and haul water. This served as part of the socialization process and offered protection, as a child would be under the guidance and control of an adult. Since the war however, as many families were so afraid of abduction of their young ones, particularly girls around the ages of 10, 11 and 12 years, they started leaving their daughters behind within the relative protection of the camps.
“In the past while we were in our homesteads a boy or girl could have her own garden…but now because of the camp and insecurity, which limits movement to the gardens, the girls have become lazy.” [(G) Adult Women]
“Ever since the government ordered everybody into the camp, due to the escalation of rebel activity, I haven’t allowed my children to move far away from the camp. It’s I who volunteers and exposes myself to carry firewood, cassava and anything with which to feed them, so they could remain in the camp. They shouldn’t go anywhere; they should remain in the camps to avoid abduction.” [(I) Adult Woman]
It was commonly reported (64% of individual interviews with adult women) that in the absence of adult supervision girls who were left behind in the camps during the day were vulnerable to potential harms, including sexual predation. As one woman observes:
“Supposing you leave for the garden, she will also leave for an unknown destination. You return from the garden only to hear rumours about her bad conduct all over the camp. In our absence she will have gone to have sex with a boy in the daytime. In my case, my daughter is spending time with boys in their huts.” [(G) Adult Women]
This situation whereby mothers were forced to leave girls idle and unsupervised in the camps during the day due to security concerns was quite different from leaving your daughter at home alone in a village-setting, prior to the war, where homes were at least three kilometres apart. For a child to move from household to household looking for where to sleep and to get something to eat was totally unacceptable in the Acholi culture. It was disgusting, worrying, and it undermined the socialization process. Parents reported feeling incompetent and useless in such circumstances and felt that their power and rights to protect their families and children had been taken away with the on-set of displacement camp living.
Contributing to this vulnerable situation was large numbers of adolescent girls dropping out of school and/or diminished school attendance. A common situation described in focus group discussions with mothers in the camps was adolescent girls leaving school due to early pregnancy and early marriage or because they could not afford the uniform and other costs associated with schooling (i.e. books, pencils), despite the fact that primary school is free in Uganda. Furthermore, some children missed classes because they were afraid of being abducted on the way to and from school while others failed to attend to avoid the stigma associated with going to school with their younger peers. There were no adult education programmes or accelerated learning programmes provided in the camps to help children catch-up in school therefore many children who lost school time during the war (including children who were abducted) were forced to (re) join with classmates who were much younger than them. Due to their older age, children felt out of place in school and many of them subsequently dropped-out. Many parents (60% of individual interviews with adult women) indicated that girls being out of school coupled with the fact that children were no longer accompanying and assisting their mothers in the garden, increased girls’ vulnerability to predation during the day.
Vulnerability at night
The night-commuting phenomenon during the war, where thousands of children flocked from their villages to Gulu town to sleep in churches, hospitals, and on verandas in order to avoid abduction and other violence, is well documented. At its peak in the spring of 2004, there were 40,000 children commuting every night. Children would walk several kilometres to town every night to sleep; in the morning they would walk back home, go to school, and then come back into town to sleep again. Various Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) responded to the crisis by organizing sleeping shelters in urban centres. At that time, NGO reports highlighted concerns about the predation and sexual abuse/violence of girls as they moved unescorted from villages to the sleeping centres. Through our interviews, we uncovered another concerning ‘night-commuting’ trend that was characteristic of the IDP camp situation and was of great concern. Girls and boys were moving away from their families’ huts at dusk to sleep in other huts within camp perimeters. For the most part, many children were moving to circumstances where an older cousin was the only person providing supervision to a hut full of children, both girls and boys. The explanation for this ‘internal’ night-commuting by children in IDP camps is two-fold. First, when children were old enough to understand their parents’ need for sexual privacy they traditionally did not sleep in their parents’ hut but rather in their grandmothers’ hut or the bachelors’ hut. It appears that children were still following these cultural traditions in IDP camp settings. Second, if families were living on the periphery of the camp, their children were at increased risk for abduction by the very nature of the location of their hut. For security reasons, parents would attempt to negotiate a safe hut for their child to sleep in closer to the center of the camp. Some families, early in camp settlement, may have secured enough land to build two huts for their own families. Frequently, these huts would come up for ‘rent’ to those families who needed alternative arrangements for their children. According to both the women and girls we interviewed it was during this ‘internal’ night-commuting when girls were most vulnerable to predation by men who would be offering food and clothing in exchange for sex; many girls we interviewed (52% of individual interviews with adolescent girls) reported that this is when their sexual debut occurred. The following quotes illustrate this concerning trend:
“If you are old, you cannot share room with your parents; you will go and sleep with your relatives, so you are showing them respect.” [(I) Adolescent Girl]
“Their lives are spoilt. At night they roam about the camps, going out to visit their boy friends, where they spend the night and come back in the morning. This is because they don’t sleep in the same house with their parents. So the parents don’t know what the girls do at night.” [(I) Adult Woman]
THEME III: Access to reproductive and sexual health information/services
Various sources of sex/HIV/AIDS information in the IDP camps were identified by discussants. Participants reported receiving information from: parents; elder sisters and brothers; teachers; (sex) magazines; Straight Talk (a monthly article in the New Vision newspaper); radio programmes; health workers; sexual partners; peers; church, and; pornographic video shows. However, a common finding was that many of these information sources were not necessarily cognizant of the current realties of adolescent girls living in displacement camps, which in-turn diminished their overall benefit. As one girl explains:
“When they [family planning services] are teaching about condoms, they usually restrict it to people of 18 years and above. They are the ones who are advised to use it. The use of family planning is for married women (those with husbands) not for girls…young girls in the ages of 12–14 years don’t have any knowledge about condoms.” [(G) Adolescent Girl]
Similarly, FM radios were reported to be sources of sex/HIV/AIDS information; they communicated information on how to use condoms, avoid STIs/HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancies, and encouraged blood testing for HIV. However, some adolescents noted the shortcomings of these campaigns including redundant repetition and incongruity between the assumptions of the broadcasters and the children’s realities. For instance, radio presenters took for granted that condoms and medical services were readily available in camps, which was rarely the case. In fact, an over-whelming majority of adolescent girls (91% of individual interviews) found it difficult to obtain condoms in the camps. Furthermore, most adolescents lived in homes that could not afford to buy radio batteries, leaving many children without access to the radio programmes.
Churches were also identified as sources of sex-related information for young people. However, research participants argued that churches only reached those that were preparing for marriage and that very few adolescents organized their sexual relationships and marriages through church anymore. Apart from preparation for marriage, churches were noted to lack adolescent-specific sex education programmes because the church never perceived adolescents as sexually active before marriage. This, however, was no longer the case for many displaced young people.
While some literature on sex had found its way into the camps, most discussed sexual performance but not sexual education. Most magazines emphasized sex styles, methods of luring women and men into sex and other issues related to sexual performance, not anticipation of and prevention of potential risks. Further, although Straight Talk articles found in newspapers available in the camps contained useful sexual information, access to this information required purchasing the newspaper, an impractical and expensive luxury for most adolescents. Moreover, the articles were written in English making it difficult especially for those adolescents who were out of school to benefit from their content.
Although many participants (68% of individual interviews) reported access to information on HIV/AIDS, very few (6% of individual interviews) noted sufficient access to information on puberty, sexuality, condoms, abortion and pregnancy. Additionally, the majority of participants (73% of individual interviews) articulated an urgent need for sexual health information and services that were adaptive to the current needs of adolescent girls and could support girls in translating their knowledge and awareness of HIV/AIDS into prevention behaviour. As one woman explains:
“Other sex related information in this area is urgently needed so that our youths are helped to bring changes in their lives…but without that then at 12 years, 13 years you find all girls pregnant.” [(G) Adult Women]