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.

Global Fellows Meet in Kenya

By Geoffrey Waringa, Goldin Global Fellow, Kenya

On Feb 3rd, 4th and 5th, GATHER global alumni from Uganda Miss Diana Alaroker and Geoffrey Omony of Youth Leaders for Restoration and Development (YOLRED), the first organization designed and run by former child soldiers, attended an Anti-Slavery Knowledge Network workshop in Nairobi, Kenya.

During the workshop, they made time to link up with me, GATHER Global alumni from Kenya Mr. Jeff Waringa, and it was a very joyful meet-up for people who have virtually know each other for more than a year but never met physically.

The three of us had very fruitful discussions centered on the possibility of working together on a regional scale. We noted the challenges of real time communication with all GATHER fellows from the East African region due to engagements and access to online communications amongst them. However, we made a commitment to start the conversation and get something going that the rest of the East African fellows could join later.

They made arrangements for a further meeting the next day which was the Ugandans’ day of departing. They made time to meet in between other meetings and on the ride to the airport. On the last day, they visited Goldin institute’s partners Arigatou Kenya offices in Nairobi, where they also had very pleasant discussions with Dr. Dorcas Kiplagat about the YOLRED projects in Uganda. Dorcas and I also had a pleasant meeting, and I updated her on my work in Kenya and the challenges I’m facing in combating the wave of violent extremist radicalization on the Kenyan coast.

The meetings ended well and commitments were made to remain in constant communication towards further collaborations.

Crime and Criminal Justice in Chicago Event

On Tuesday, March 19, the Chicago Peace Fellows attended a City Club of Chicago luncheon titled, “Crime and Criminal Justice in Chicago: Challenges for the new mayor,” featuring Professor Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. The talk covered how Chicago as a city needs to handle the issue of violence.

Dr. Ludwig shared perspective and data to illustrate his understanding of the issue of violence in the city. He started by comparing Chicago to other major cities like New York and Los Angeles and explained that Chicago has historically had higher rates of violence by comparison.

Dr. Jens Ludwig of the Univesity of Chicago Crime Lab shares how violence in Chicago compares to other American city at the March 19, 2019 event at the City Club of Chicago.

The rate of homicides in America has gone through several boom and bust cycles throughout the decades, Ludwig said. Notably, this trend included a huge spike in homicides in the early ‘90s across the US along with a drop in the subsequent years. After the nationwide drop, Los Angeles and New York City’s rates remained low while Chicago saw a huge spike in homicides which peaked in 2016. The difference between the cities are stark and it’s even more shocking when you look at the violence rates per capita between the cities; L.A. and N.Y.C. have much larger populations but much lower rates of violence.

Alex Levesque (from left) shares his experience in violence prevention with Deborah Bennet from the Polk Bros. Foundation and Velvian Boswell.

Ludwig then offered a few explanations for the difference. First, he pointed to the huge disparities of wealth in the city, showing maps that display high rates of poverty on the South and West sides of the city. He then discussed the need for more police to curb the violence, an action step that L.A. and N.Y.C. took to deal with the violence of the early ‘90s. He concluded his talk with a call to action that we view the violence in the city as a crisis.

He answered several questions about his presentation, including two from the Chicago Peace Fellows, Robert Beikman, executive director of the Chicago Alternatives to Incarceration, and Jacqueline Moore, executive director of Agape Works.

Chicago Peace Fellows Pamela Butts (from left), Dawn Hodges and Jeanette Coleman with the Goldin Institute's Oz Ozburn at the March 19, 2019 event at the City Club of Chicago.

Here’s how other Chicago Peace Fellows reflected on the event:

Dawn Hodges, executive administrator of Imani Community Development Corporation: “[Jens Ludwig] really exposed the scope of Chicago's problem. We have a lot of work to do to help our city.”

Jeanette Coleman, executive director of I am My Brother’s Keeper Unity Day:

“I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation in that I am a big proponent for evidence-based practice and was intrigued by the data presented. While it is disheartening to see how violence and poverty have overtaken most of the South and West sides of Chicago, it validates the importance of our work in these communities. I would like to explore more opportunities to reinstate mental health and behavioral health therapy for youth in particular but families/individuals, in general, considering the trauma experienced from exposure to violence, witnessing homicides, children being raised by extended family or in the foster care system due to the impact of substance abuse and violence in the city. If incorporating more police into our practice would help, as was documented in New York, then let's do it! In the meantime, let's equip our families with more coping skills and opportunities to find hopeful outcomes.”

Robin Cline, associate director of Neighborspace: “The presentation was even more of a reminder of what an urgent moment Chicago is in.”

Velvian Boswell, recovery specialist at the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project: “I heard a lot of stats and research on crime and why it’s the main concern from the residents of Chicago. I’m not saying it’s not important. I just believe our black men are angry; not being able to find employment, lack of skills and education is a major problem in the community. Not being able to provide for their families, being caught up in the judicial system, drugs and a lack of economic development have plagued our community with violence. I think the question should be why is there so much crime in our community? People that are producing and feeling good about themselves and are able to provide for their families do not commit crime. I think if we address those issues, crime will not be the main concern.”

Click here to see a video of the event.

[hl bg="#02a8fc" fg="#ffffff"]Thank you to the Polk Bros. Foundation for your generous support to make it possible for the Chicago Peace Fellows to participate in this thought-provoking and informative presentation at the City Club of Chicago. [/hl]