United Movement to End Child Soldiering: reflections from our work

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United Movement to End Child Soldiering, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, is partnered with UMECS: The Center for Peace, Education and Development, a Republic of Uganda Registered Non-Governmental Organization, to fulfill a mutually shared mission: to support secondary school and higher education for children and youth affected by conflict and poverty, together with school-based peace education and guidance and counseling programs, and help to build cultures of peace to prevent new wars.

Following are excerpts from their 2015 year-end newsletter which can be read here in its entirety.


As 2015 comes to a close and we prepare to welcome 2016, we share some reflections from our work on the ground during the past eleven years.

  1. War-affected children and youth bounce back from their ordeals through their resilience when given a chance. That chance is education and support services.

Over the years in running the Northern Uganda Education Programme in which we sponsor vulnerable, war-affected children and youth in secondary school through higher education graduation – entering Year 12 in 2016 – we have learned that war-affected children and youth bounce back from the trauma of their ordeals through their resilience when they become fully educated and are provided with culturally connected mentorship, life skills, guidance and counseling. An example is Nighty Aol.

UMECS student Nighty Aol was born in Nwoya district during the war in Northern Uganda. When she was a young girl, her mother died in a landmine explosion following the death of her father. Orphaned and traumatized, she was raised in an overcrowded displacement camp by extended family. UMECS sponsored Nighty in her O’level and A’level secondary school programmes in which she excelled and now is at Gulu University where she is in her second year as a candidate for the Bachelor of Public Administration degree. Youth in Uganda, she feels, given the profitability of modernized agriculture and increasing opportunities in the technological sector, should be more business, modernized agriculture and technology oriented. Her plans: to shape the minds of her community to move in these development directions, and help to formulate policies and initiate training programmes and opportunities for youth entrepreneurship and jobs creation.

For us in 21st century Uganda, “fully educated” means completion of secondary school together with attainment of at least one level of higher education – certificate, diploma or degree – followed by a commitment to lifelong learning. Education must be a long-term journey in which personal and social development accompanies academic, technical and vocational achievements and qualifications.

  1. When education is linked with community development, then educated youth return to develop their war and poverty affected communities.

Not only must war and poverty affected children and youth become fully educated, their communities need to be restored and developed at the health, education, technology, engineering, infrastructural, environmental, business management and rural transformation levels.

Community mindedness and exploring the relationship between education and responsibility are built into our programme.

As a result, not only do war-affected children and youth bounce back from their ordeals, they become change agents for peace and development.

Some examples include UMECS student alumni/a such as Simon Nokrach whose father was killed by combatants during the war. Simon returned to his high poverty community in Pader district where he is now teaching geography and other subjects in secondary school. Simon is also a trained peacebuilder. Margaret Atimango who was orphaned during the war and grew up with extended family in a displacement camp in the heart of the war zones returned to her home district in Amuru where she teaches in a nursery and primary school to very poor children. Francis Opio returned to his home district in Pader where he has become a logistics officer for an organisation that provides a range of grassroots livelihood, agricultural, water and environmental management projects in this war-affected and high poverty district.

  1. Creating community change agents stems the brain drain.

In Uganda and throughout much of the developing world, many trained professionals leave the country for greener pastures. This is especially true in the medical and health care professions. The doctor to patient ratio in Uganda was estimated in 2010 to be one doctor for every 24,725 people compared to the US where the ratio is one doctor per 242 people. In Uganda in the same year, the nurse ratio was 1:11,000 people. As a result, many people who need urgent care from doctors and nurses simply do not receive it. In addition, the preventive health care that doctors and nurses provide is greatly reduced due to their shortage.

This is a phenomenon that plagues much of sub-Saharan Africa and the developing world. A 2011 study found that 77% of Liberian doctors trained in Liberia were working in the US.

The solution is not to disparage those who leave. Improved wages and more opportunities will eventually reverse the brain drain, but that will take time.

Our students, in the meantime, do not have the brain drain in mind. They are community-minded and part of a team of Northern Uganda Education Programme student colleagues determined to change lives as their lives were changed – and specifically determined to address economic, education, social development, technological and health care needs in their communities.

UMECS student Raymond Lubangakene Otim is an example of this collective determination. When Raymond joined our programme from the overcrowded camp to which he and his family had been displaced, pictured Upper left in 2007, he told us he wanted to become a doctor. Why? He had witnessed massive suffering and death from treatable camp-related diseases and he imagined how he could have saved lives if he was a doctor. He worked hard in his sponsored O’level and A’level secondary school programmes, excelling with top grades throughout. Raymond is now in his third year in medical school at Makerere University School of Medicine. Center above, Raymond conducting tests during his 2014 internship at Rakai Hospital in Central Uganda and,Upper right, July 2014, guest lecturing a health care class at St. Adrian Kasozi Secondary School in Rakai district.

Raymond is clear why he is becoming a doctor: “Many doctors go abroad so they can make a living,” he notes. “Every year, Uganda produces doctors who then leave Uganda. For me, you don’t have to look at money, you look at saving lives. Being a doctor is all about saving lives.”

UMECS student Annet Addie, one of five students we sponsor in nursing school, is equally motivated to serve her community as a health care professional. Annet was born in Akobai village, nearby her ancestral village of Ameritele in Katakwi district from which her parents took refuge due to frequent cattle raids. “Life in my village was not okay because the Karamojong would come to raid cattle. Sometimes they would kill, loot property, rape women and young girls, making the village very insecure, hostile and vulnerable.”

Annet joined the Northern Uganda Education Programme in January 2007 and was sponsored in her O’level and A’level secondary school programmes. In November 2013, Annet was part of a cohort of sponsored students we enrolled at Gulu School of Nursing. She graduates in 2016.

“My life-long dream of becoming a nurse started a long time ago. I was driven by one goal, one vision of helping others and saving lives which started when my uncle died of a simple, treatable disease. There was nobody to treat or nurse him. His death motivated me to become a nurse so I can save lives and prevent people like my uncle from dying needlessly.”

  1. Peace Education needs to be in every secondary school everywhere.

For the past fifty years, wars, genocide and mass violence have continued to recycle in our region – Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Kenya – killing and tormenting tens of millions of civilians, stalling economic and human development, destroying infrastructure, degrading the environment, damaging culture, deterring the education of youth and preventing eradication of poverty.

When we launched the Northern Uganda Education Programme in the war zones in 2005, hundreds of thousands of people had died from brutal atrocities and disease. Tens of thousands of women had been raped, mutilated and disfigured. More than 30,000 children were abducted and forced into child soldiering.

Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) massacres were terrorizing civilians in Northern Uganda including in the displacement camps where we were based. Under these perilous conditions, we shaped our vision for peacebuilding and the education of war affected children and youth

We are committed to preventing new wars as a matter of responsibility and necessity.

One important way to help prevent new wars is through peace education in secondary schools.

Why secondary schools? Secondary school is where students transition from adolescents to young adults. Secondary school students are establishing their values, finding their moral compass. They have influence with their peers, families and communities and want to change the world.

In 2010, we launched Peace Education and Guidance & Counseling in Secondary Schools in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Sports.

The purpose: to build cultures of peace to prevent new wars, build peaceful schools and communities, personally develop youth through life skills and counseling, foster mediation and relationship building and prepare youth to become lifelong peacebuilding practitioners. The programme piloted in seven secondary schools in four districts in Northern Uganda and has had groundbreaking results and outcomes. Read more.

A Note on Reconciliation

We believe reconciliation is the missing ingredient in preventing new wars. In addition to building reconciliation into peace education programmes, we believe groups with recent or past histories of conflict need to reconcile to prevent new wars and mass violence.

Reconciliation is how people heal and how relationships transform. It is a process which leads to a mutual acceptance by members of formerly hostile groups of each other. Underlying reconciliation is the innate goodness of humanity.

As formerly antagonistic sides reconcile, they realize the deep pain of the other. The parties are able to internalize the other also as a victim, not only as to the immediate conflict, but understanding the system, conditions and circumstances that pressured them to act in violent ways. Part of this process includes learning the origins of the conflict.

This realization activates empathy and compassion and fosters the process of seeing others as human beings in the spirit of Ubuntu and worth interaction, relationship, trust and all the next stages in the process. When guided by culturally-based traditional justice procedures infused with a religious spirit, reconciliation entails admission of acts committed, forgiveness and accountability. These processes are carried out in public, in front of the village or in community forums.

As a unified, systemic approach carried out locally, sub-regionally, nationally and regionally, reconciliation heals, restores and builds relationship, trust, understanding, and acceptance so that groups co-exist and want to co-exist in peace, cooperation and harmony – preventing new wars.

  1. Investing in education and peacebuilding are gifts with lasting dividends.

When you invest in the educations of war and poverty-affected youth in Uganda, you are investing not only in their future as individuals but in the future of their families and communities.

Educated youth lift their families out of poverty by educating their siblings and later on, their own children, ending syndromes of poverty. Educated youth contribute to the development of their communities and serve as valuable role models to community youth.

In addition, when girls are educated, they are far less likely to become exploited as cheap labour or through child marriage. Instead, they are economically and socially empowered, have fulfilling lives and educate their own children.

When you invest in peacebuilding in Uganda – which has had four wars since independence in 1962 – you are investing in life itself.

When you invest in peacebuilding, you are investing in peace education, reconciliation and conflict transformation, helping to build cultures of peace to prevent new wars. Lasting peace leads to sustainable development. Investing in peacebuilding has lasting dividends.

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