Peace

African Women Win Promise of U.S. Protection

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Obama earlier this week signed the most widely co-sponsored Africa-specific law in U.S. history. Supporters hope it will defend women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Sudan from further atrocities.

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Sense of Growing Urgency

The urgency of developing a new strategy to tackle the Lord's Resistance Army is part of what drew both members of Congress to the bill.

"Recent reports indicate that, rather than being weakened, the LRA today is stronger and strategically more sophisticated than it was just last year," said Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, before the final House vote.

The law represents the culmination of a five-year grassroots campaign by American college students and Washington-based advocacy groups such as Resolve Uganda, Invisible Children and the Genocide Intervention Network. Forty-nine Sudanese, Ugandan, Congolese and American groups released a statement after the signing, welcoming the law, Resolve Uganda said.

Campus-based groups such as Invisible Children drew attention to the Lord's Resistance Army through large, eye-catching events. In one called "Displace Me," held in 2007, over 68,000 individuals slept outside in 15 cities to draw attention to the regional conflict driven by the Lord's Resistance.

From 1987 to 2005, the movement terrorized countless Ugandan women with sexual violence, slavery and abductions and abducted over 60,000 children from northern Ugandan communities, according to Human Rights Watch.

About 2 million Ugandans were displaced by fighting between the Lord's Resistance Army and the government and were forced by the government in 2001 to live in squalid camps, according to Enough, an anti-genocide project of the American Center for Progress, a progressive Washington think tank.

Women suffered disproportionately, as they faced high levels of sexual violence within the camps and were disconnected from the land they farmed to feed their families, said Paul Ronan, co-founder of Resolve Uganda.

Shifting the Operation

Since the Lord's Resistance Army was ousted from Uganda it has largely operated out of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Sudan, where government leaders say its forces have been diminished.

Researchers and local communities, however, rebut that. Some say brutal attacks have been underreported and could get much worse.

Earlier this year, Resolve Uganda's Ronan traveled to different parts of east and central Africa where the Lord's Resistance Army has been operating. He was heartened by the signs of rapid rebuilding in northern Uganda since 2005, when the Lord's Resistance Army was driven out. But he was discouraged by the escalation of the armed movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the Central African Republic and Sudan.

"There's been a huge impact on Congolese women," Ronan told Women's eNews in a phone interview from his Washington, D.C., office. "There are high levels of internal displacement and they can't access their fields. Many Congolese women and girls have been abducted and forced to do sexual acts with the LRA commanders; women who escape say that's a common occurrence."

Violence linked to Lord's Resistance escalated after a U.S.-funded joint regional military operation in December 2008, which was led by Uganda, failed to capture the top Lord's Resistance Army commander.

After that, the rebel army scattered throughout the region and retaliated by murdering 800 civilians, abducting women as sex slaves and conscripting children over the next two months, according to Human Rights Watch. In December 2009, the Lord's Resistance Army killed 321 civilians in three days and abducted 250 people, according to a March 2010 Human Rights Watch report.

Rebecca Harshbarger is a journalist based in New York. She started a media company called Africa Connections that connects African immigrants with independent news from their homelands. The company's pilot news site recently launched at www.ugandansabroad.org. You can follow Rebecca on twitter at www.twitter.com/rebeccaugust.

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