Originally published as part of Peace Heroes series on Ms Magazine
It was 2005. The women’s 80-kilometer march along the tarmac road from Kampala to Juba was almost spontaneous. Finally, after 20 years of war in which the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abducted hundreds of boys and girls, there was a chance to stop the violence.
Robinah Rubimbwa, long-time peace activist, poet and feminist, was among the women who decided to go. If the peace talks would not be held in Uganda, the women of Uganda would go to the peace talks.
Rubimbwa, the National Coordinator of the Coalition for Action on Resolution 1325 (CoACT 1325), pioneered the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 action process in Uganda, adopting the model developed by the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) and customizing it for Uganda. She was among the women who marched for days to Juba to take part in the negotiation process between Uganda and the armed rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from October 2005 to March 2006.
She recounted her story to Ms. and discussed how women continue to shape Uganda.
Why did the Women’s Peace Coalition start?
The Women’s Peace Coalition in Uganda started around 2003 when the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, the first extremist organization in the country, was at its peak in the North. The LRA headed by Joseph Kony is perhaps the prototype for the kind of extremist movements now prevalent across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Warping Christian ideology, the LRA tapped into grievances and used the most vile forms of violence: kidnapping, coercing children to kill, and raping women.
They did things that Uganda had never seen. Whenever they invaded a community, they maimed women. They cut off their lips, nose, and limbs, and poked out their eyes with sticks. This followed a long pattern of sexual violence.
The women in northern Uganda had long decided that they had to take charge of the situation because the government seemed so absent and far away in Kampala. Meanwhile, the women organizations at the national level realized that the women in northern Uganda needed help. We started demanding peace talks rather than the military solutions that President Yoweri Museveni was championing, and in which he was investing vast sums of money. The women refused [the military solution], as the Lord’s Resistance Army was made up of “sons of the soil.” Though they were harassing their own communities, they were not strangers to the country. The mothers said that they were their sons, coming back to kill them, to take their brothers, and to rape their sisters. “We don’t want our sons killed, so what do we do as mothers?” They decided to turn to centuries-old cultural practices that had existed between clans to demand peace talks. The government resisted for a long time, until its military approaches failed. Meanwhile, the international community was also beginning to listen to the women. In 2002, a social worker whose daughter had been abducted spoke at the annual commemoration of Resolution 1325 at the UN Security Council. She demanded attention from the world. Her voice together with those of many others, contributed to the momentum. Finally, President Museveni agreed to attempt peace talks.
How did the peace talks begin?
President Museveni appointed Betty Bigombe to act as his envoy. Bigombe had few resources and no security but she chose to reach out and talk to the LRA. She understood how to draw on her identity as a Ugandan woman. She proved her commitment by walking into the forest where rebel leader Joseph Kony and his fighters stayed, to try to convince him to go home. Inspired by Bigombe’s courage, religious leaders in northern Uganda decided to go with her. When the government saw their determination to talk with the rebels, it decided to support them, and this was the beginning of the peace talks.
International agencies joined the negotiations. Kony accepted. Everyone agreed that the peace talks would take place in Juba, South Sudan. When the government listed the people that would represent Uganda, we were horrified. There was not a single woman on the team. The women decided that these talks – which had been demanded by women, and initiated by Bigombe – were their own, and they would not let the men do it without them.
We held a conference and made our voices heard. The President appointed the Director for Gender to join the team, though she did not know what the women in northern Uganda were facing, and she had never even been to the region. We accepted the government’s delegation but decided to have our own delegation from the Women’s Peace Coalition as well, regardless of support from the government or others. We organized ourselves and agreed that everyone would be self-funded. We would walk to Juba. We started mobilizing to bring others along. The grassroots women from northern Uganda who had experienced the actual conflict would not be left behind.
What brought international attention to the march?
We decided to approach the issue with high publicity so that everyone would know that the women of Uganda would not sit back and let this happen without them. We approached the office of the Speaker of Parliament about a launch. He refused. We went to the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, who was a woman and human rights lawyer with a background in civil society. She agreed to host the launching of the march.
In addition, there was a peace torch of the African Union that had been lying in Kinshasa for years. We asked for it to be brought to Kampala, so we could take it on the march to Juba. On the day of the launch, we had mobilized the media, and met at the office of the Deputy Speaker of Parliament.
Senior figures who had refused to support us suddenly realized it was the women of Uganda who were genuinely committed to peace.
International organizations also came in for support, and we started walking. Companies gave us water, blankets, coats and sweaters. We didn’t care if there was rain or shine, we were walking to Juba. We ended up walking 40 kilometers a day. When we crossed the Nile at the Karuma Falls, we found the women from northern Uganda waiting for us. It was only shortly before we crossed into South Sudan that the government sent us buses for the rest of the way.
Did you get into the room where negotiations would take place? How did you take part in the negotiations in Juba? And what came out of the talks?
In Juba no one stopped us from entering the negotiation room–because there were no rooms!
Just tents. We were not inside though. Our strategy was to listen from behind the tent’s curtains to what was being said, then catch them during the break and discuss what should be said next. But we realized that the government delegation had little understanding of the critical issues that needed to be addressed urgently. So we started writing notes and passing them to the government delegation from under the tent curtains, advising them on key issues to insist upon.
Finally after days of negotiation when the peace agreement was issued, we felt that the voices of Ugandan women had informed and influenced the outcomes, albeit in an unconventional way. Although Kony and Museveni did not sign that document, it informed the peace recovery and development plan for northern Uganda.
We believe that women have a right to be at the peace table from the beginning. They should not have to sit behind curtains and pass notes so that others can speak for them. They should be able to speak for themselves. They should be able to negotiate what they want in a peace process because that enables them to monitor implementation. Our coalition has now moved far beyond note-passing.
What has changed in those 10 years? How is today’s Uganda different from the country 10 years ago?
Since that time, the women of Uganda have refused to sit back. Anything that has changed is largely because of women. It was the women that sustained families during that war. They went out to get food and firewood. They also learned entrepreneurial skills during that time. They learned to brew their own local beer in the displacement camps, which helped them buy their clothes and support their families. Men, on the other hand, spent the whole day drinking. They were in these camps for 10 years, so we have a generation of men who grew up drinking, not learning a skill, and not even going to school. When they went to their new homes after the war, the women went back to the community with new acquired skills. They had learned to be leaders, and increased their capacity for trade and leadership. Then civil society organizations trained them in public speaking and peacekeeping. The experience is transforming the gender roles within families.
What does extremism look like to you now?
Right now, the international community thinks Uganda is a peaceful country, but we are experiencing political extremism. It is the different ideologies of political factions that are at both ends of the continuum. We have the ruling party at one end and the opposition at the other, and both groups are extremists in their rhetoric and in their actions. There is no middle ground. Each one regards the other as their enemy. The government believes that the opposition wants to strip the President, who has been in his position for 30 years, of his power. The opposition believes that the government is the enemy of the people because it is investing a lot of money in militarism and arming the police.
We are proud that we can go to other countries as peacekeepers, but there is no peace at home.
The opposition is saying instead of building up the military and turning these guns on the citizens, why don’t we put this money into social services that have collapsed. But the manner in which the opposition is doing this is also extreme. They are taking to the streets every day. The youth go with stones and sticks, ready to beat the police. They want to cause havoc. The police break their bones and kill these rioters. Some of the rioters left school at the elementary or secondary levels, others finished university but have been on the street for years, so they feel like they have nothing to lose.
Meanwhile, there is the entrenchment of the ruling party now. People who are related to the President or are his friends benefit from favors. For example, our President recently appointed his wife as the Minister of Education. The Minister of Foreign Affairs’ son is the leader of the most elite military section. So people are looking at that and getting increasingly angry and full of resentment. The opposition is tapping into that to move their own agenda. We, as women, are warning against both of these extremes.
In your work as a peace practitioner, what would you ask the world to do?
Firstly, I would ask the international community to moderate their view of President Museveni. They see him as a great statesman in the region, as a mediator in South Sudan, as a peacemaker in Somalia. They are giving him funds to do these things, without questioning how those funds are being used – to militarize our local politics. Even the Ministry of Agriculture’s extension advisory services are headed by military men. The number of policemen in Uganda is unbelievable; they are in the millions. Western governments should hold him accountable for peace in his own house, because the consequences of the current trajectory will be bad for everyone.
Secondly, I am calling on the international community to lead by example. Increase funds for things that are positive, not things that destroy. Increase funding for work on peacekeeping and mediation instead of arms. The international community should train more female peacekeepers and negotiators in Africa and the Middle East. Women are peacekeepers by nature. They would be far less likely to be implicated in sexual abuse of women and girls in local communities.
Thirdly, I would like the international community to fund women’s organizations that are working for peace with minimal resources, instead of giving the dollars to governments that abuse that money.
What activities does the Women’s Peace Coalition conduct nowadays?
We train women’s community-based organizations in peacebuilding and gender-based violence prevention programming. We train district local governments to localize Resolution 1325. We train women in local councils for effective legislative and representation skills. We work with grassroots women’s groups to monitor public service delivery. We train police and military on 1325 and the Women Peace and Security agenda, and recently we started engaging them on countering violent extremism. We have also started working with Muslim women in Kampala and Rwenzori regions on preventing and countering radicalism.
How does ICAN help with your work?
ICAN brings together women that have worked with extremist groups and within very violent conflicts. I want to learn from them. I want to share the bit that we have done as the women of Uganda, but I also want to learn new strategies, particularly to prevent an escalation of what is happening in my country so that it doesn’t become full-blown extremism.