Prevention, Reintegration, and Healing of ex-Child Combatants in Northern Uganda

Early this year, I and Diana attended a two days’ workshop in Nairobi organize by the Antislavery Knowledge Network (AKN) with the aim to contribute to a critical conversation on modern slavery and the value of methods from the arts and humanities in addressing it.

In 2018, YOLRED had been awarded a one year large grant from AKN worth £40,430 for its art based project titled Bila Pi Kuc: Creative Art-based Therapies for the Prevention, Reintegration, and Healing of ex-Child Combatants in Northern Uganda. Additionally, the safeguarding project which also aim at promoting a process of dialogue on concrete practical measures that each of us in our different roles can take, individually and collectively, to promote good safeguarding practice at every stage of the international development research process was as well funded by the AKN.

Therefore, the workshop gave YOLRED the opportunity to share with its partners the progress and outputs of these two projects respectively.

Bila Pi Kuc had three major outputs:

  1. A community cultural festival which brought together over 500 people for a day of creative arts-based performances, with the aim of facilitating dialogue on several issues related to child-soldiery that were not addressed during post-conflict peacebuilding and remain overlooked even today.
  2. A graphic novel which amalgamated stories collected from in-depth interviews and oral histories with 25 former child soldiers to form one narrative. The graphic novel is available at:
  3. An animated film presenting the journey of former child soldiers, using the voices of the research participants as the narration.

The Graphic Novel, We are Not Free, has been widely distributed locally including over 50 schools, religious institutions and cultural centers.  Through our partners in the UK, the novel has been shared through the University of Bristol website where is has been one of the top most viewd pages for the University (where the average time spent on the page is over 5 minutes).  Our colleague Jassi shared the graphic novel in an interview on BBC Bristol and has been used by international organizations like War Child UK, Child Soldiers International and at a number of Universities across the country.

Globally, the Graphic Novel has been shared widely as well:

  • Displayed at the UNFPA’s high-level Nairobi summit (ICPD25) in November 2019, which was attended by over 8000 delegates;
  • Presented at the ISSOP’s annual meeting on Children in Armed Conflict in Beirut in September 2019;
  • Shared with: universities in Europe, NGOs, policy offices;
  • UN Children in Armed Conflict Unit
  • New Humanitarian
  • Child Soldiers Initiative (Canada)
  • Justice Hub
  • UN Security working group for children in Democratic Republic of Congo

Thanks to the success of this initiative, we have witnessed change or success in three primary areas:

  1. Confidence and Esteem: we have seen the beneficiaries involved in this project see themselves in the outputs and feel valued and their voices expressed
  2. Global Reach: More engagement with researchers internationally who have seen the comic and have reached out to Jassi or me about how to write about child soldiers in an ethical and positive way
  3. Community Cohesion: the cultural festival has brought together former combatants and non-combatants in a positive and non-judgemental space

On the other hand, the safeguarding project was created to address some of the issues around safeguarding and research practices in the region, so the safeguarding challenges and barriers were not necessarily specific to the project but instead relevant to the work YOLRED does.

The challenges to the safeguarding of former child soldiers and YOLRED staff (and to some extent the wider Northern Ugandan community) which were exposed during the focus groups included:

  • Negligence in the way we conduct research and not considering local cultural and social values, for example international researchers dressing inappropriately, and asking questions which revolve around taboo subjects, such as sexual intimacy and killing. Most research agendas are driven by the researchers or the funders, with little importance given to the research desires of people in the region. Moreover, much research does not show the actual representation on ground, as researchers choose to interpret the data in a way which suits their agenda or research objectives.

  • Exploitative and extractive nature of research, which takes from participants without providing any benefits in return. Most former child soldiers would agree that they are the ones benefiting the researchers, as their stories are providing the researchers with careers and salaries. Moreover, the lack of compensation for people’s time, including YOLRED’s and other NGOs involved in research projects, fails to address the neo-coloniality of research projects such as the ones active in international development research. Language for direct communication between researcher and the former child soldiers has always been a challenge too as most former child soldiers do not speak English, and as a result are unable to access the language of the researcher but also their research outputs.Rushed nature of data collection: the time frame and approach of researchers whereby they come for few days and want to get enough information for their research and put a lot of pressure on participants and NGOs they are working with. Due to these time limits, they also do not sometimes vet the people they are working with and sometimes research assistants are not credible (i.e. some people invite their friends or relatives to work as research assistants). They also ignore the component of creating a rapport with the participants and do not interact much with people locally. Doing the interview from the participant’s home gives alertness to the community members about their status of being former child soldiers.

  • White Savior Syndrome where people see everything about “white people” as being good and their expectations are always high.

In response to these various concerns, we wanted to document what practices former child soldiers themselves felt were harmful, exploitative, and negatively impacting them within current research practices. We therefore held 3 focus group discussions with 33 former child soldiers and then a stakeholder workshop, to explore what community leaders believed were issues with research practices. And, after carrying out the data collection, we confirmed that they are continuing to suffer from unequal and exploitative research practices, as described above, but even more strongly than we had presumed (for example, we did not realise that most of them believed that YOLRED was financially benefiting from researchers engaging in these projects though them, when the truth is that YOLRED actually is not compensated for their time and only engages with researchers due to feelings of obligation as well as hope that they can bring some change).

Following this, and through working with the community groups and former child soldiers, we were able to update YOLRED’s safeguarding policy with this new information forming an integral part and produce an internal policy for YOLRED.  We have used these new protection protocols to educate YOLRED staff about the harms felt by former child soldiers within research processes (as the team were present during the focus group discussions and listened to the concerns of the groups we work with) and engage with a range of stakeholders on safeguarding issues and shared the information we had obtained during the FGDs with our wider network.  We are currently producing a report on the findings, with a set of guidelines on how researchers can operate more ethically in the region.

This is part of a collaborative project between YOLRED (Uganda) with Jassi Sandhar (University of Bristol) and the Goldin Institute. This project, titled “Bila Pi Kuc: Creative Art-based Therapies for the Prevention, Reintegration, and Healing of ex-Child Combatants in Northern Uganda”, is generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the Anti-Slavery Knowledge Network (as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund).

After the workshop, we were exhilarated to meet our own Global Alumni Geoffrey Waringa and really we had a wonderful conversation with him.