Listening to youth: The experiences of young people in northern Uganda - Jun 2007


Executive Summary

In May 2007, the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children (Women's Commission) visited northern Uganda to meet young people and gather their opinions and ideas with respect to the five themes of the Machel Study 10-year Strategic Review:

- consequences of the conflict;

- coping strategies;

- participation in decision-making;

- peace and reconciliation; and

- recommendations for the local, national and international community.

The following report is based on focus groups with more than 200 young women and men, and interviews with representatives from the Government of Uganda, UN agencies and international and local non-governmental organizations in the Gulu and Kitgum districts.


(1) Consequences of the conflict

Young people shared the following concerns about issues that have characterized their experience during the conflict:

- Education is their priority concern, and the solution to the many challenges they face.

- The lack of opportunities to earn a safe and dignified income to support themselves and their families is also a high priority concern. Many identified exploitation and abuse, poor health and hygiene and lack of food as a direct result of their inability to earn any income.

- Sexual abuse and exploitation are widespread.

- Food rations are inadequate.

- Some formerly abducted children experience stigmatization by other community members.

- Traditional cultural norms have been undermined by more than two decades of conflict and displacement, and young people wish to restore their Acholi culture.

In particular, a "culture of dependency" has emerged among people in the north, which contrasts with the traditional value of self sufficiency.

Emerging concerns

Young people stated that while the transition to peace is promising, they are concerned about the following challenges:

- With the population movement out of camps, children are increasingly being left alone in the original internally displaced persons (IDP) camps to continue accessing services, such as schools, while older family members return home to prepare the land.

- They, and their families, may face challenges or conflicts in acquiring or reclaiming land and reintegrating into their families' villages of origin.

- The possible transition from relief to development may precipitate a drop in international funding and support at a critical juncture when it is greatly needed.

(2) Recent Progress

Young people noted the following improvements in their lives:

- Security in the region has improved significantly. Of particular relevance to the lives of young people is the dramatic reduction in abductions by the rebel forces known as the Lord's Resistance Army.

- Families are exploring the possibility of returning home, although there are associated risks.

- "Night commuting" has all but ceased; previously an estimated 40,000 children and youth were "commuting" from IDP camps to town centers each night to avoid abduction.

- Young people participating in programs aimed at reintegration appear to be adjusting well. Interviews with young people and other stakeholders also indicated that the following positive developments have occurred:

- Sensitization campaigns, for example, those on good health and hygiene practices, appear to have been effective.

- Young men and women are active in addressing community problems.

- NGOs, UN and government agencies appear to recognize and value the importance of youth participation.

- The humanitarian community in northern Uganda is also learning from past experience of "targeting" returnees or other categories of people for services, which contributed to stigmatization. Today, organizations are moving toward more inclusive programming to reduce tension and discrimination in local communities.

(3) Coping strategies

Young people described the following strategies they, and their families, employ to cope with the challenges they face. Some of these strategies are more constructive while others may result in additional risks.

- Forming and belonging to youth groups help them to address multiple needs, including companionship and support, and the opportunity to develop new skills.

- Religion plays an important role in the lives of many. Young people often referenced God and religious institutions as a source of comfort and strength.

- Young people who participated in the Women's Commission's 2001 participatory research (1) on the needs and potential contributions of young people developed critical thinking, research and advocacy skills, and increased confidence and commitment to their communities.

- Young people preserve their cultural heritage by learning and performing traditional music, dance and drama. These activities are also used as vehicles to raise awareness and address challenges such as HIV/AIDS prevention and conflict resolution.

- Parents or relatives encourage some young girls to get married for the dowry payment and to reduce the household's expenses.

- Transactional sex among girls appears to be rampant and spans the spectrum from prostitution or payment for services to sex for favors, such as material possessions.

- Alcohol abuse is prevalent and drug abuse was also mentioned.

- Some families use defilement (rape of girls under 18) cases as an economic strategy to elicit a "bride price" from the families of boys convicted under this law.

- Parents voluntarily leave younger family members unattended for extended periods of time as a strategy for preparing for resettlement in a period when prospects for sustainable peace and land reclamation are uncertain.

(4) Peace and Reconciliation

Young people demonstrated awareness of the peace talks between the Lord's Resistance Army and the Government of Uganda underway in Juba, Southern Sudan at the time of this study. They expressed the following opinions about the peace process:

- They have had little opportunity to participate in the proceedings or to express their preferences for its outcome.

- Displaced and formerly abducted young people felt that they should be represented in the negotiations, as they have been most directly affected by the conflict.

(5) Participation

Interviews with young people and other stakeholders indicated that:

- International and local NGOs, UN and government agencies are involving youth in their programs in a variety of ways, not only as beneficiaries of their services, but also in roles such as youth counselors and peer educators.

- What is clear is that young people are participating in activities; what isn't clear is the extent to which young people are participating in decision-making.

- There are significant discrepancies in how young people participate, who participates and to what end across agencies, organizations and programs.

- The significant potential of youth organizations as a venue for young people's empowerment and inclusion in community decision-making is not fully realized. Youth organizations appear to represent the most prevalent forms of participation. However, most organizations lack adequate funding and capacity for innovative, appropriate planning.


Young people recommended that national and international stakeholders:

- Increase and sustain support to their communities, even and especially if a transition to peace begins.

- Support them in achieving the highest level of formal education possible, which will require catch-up classes and bridging programs for young people who have missed years of school.

- Support them in obtaining safe, dignified and sufficient sources of income. All economic programs should build on affected populations' existing assets, match local market needs and lead to sustainable income. Careful planning is needed to ensure that young women have access to training and learning opportunities, such as providing child care and flexible hours.

- Take immediate action to prevent and appropriately respond to sexual exploitation and abuse. This includes ensuring that women and girls have safe access to water, food, fuel, sanitation and income generation opportunities. Health care workers should be trained to provide comprehensive clinical care to survivors of rape and sexual abuse.

- Support youth-friendly health services in IDP camps and home villages.

- Provide more financial and technical support to youth organizations, as the institutions that most effectively and comprehensively address their priority needs. One way is to contribute to the MacArthur Foundation's Trust Fund for War-Affected Children and Youth in Northern Uganda, which provides small, flexible grants for local projects with an emphasis on education and skills building for youth.

- Provide young people with more opportunities to participate in decisionmaking about issues that affect their lives.


(1) See the Women's Commission's report, Against All Odds: Surviving the War Against Adolescents, 2001,