Joanna was only 10 years old when soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) stormed through her village in northern Uganda. She was one of several children abducted from her primary school that day. Once she was out in the bush with the militia, she was forced to carry heavy loads for the soldiers, to take care of the younger children and to witness and even participate in the murder of other child soldiers who tried to escape.
One day, on patrol, Joanna managed to escape. Luckily, she was near the border with Sudan where Ugandan government soldiers were stationed. That meant her captors could not chase her; she would have faced certain death if she was caught.
When she finally reached home, Joanna found that her father had been murdered by the LRA. She worked as a housekeeper, to help support her mother and siblings, but, like many vulnerable young women in her position, she was repeatedly raped and sexually abused by her employer.
When Network 4 Africa first met Joanna in 2010, she had been profoundly traumatized by her experiences. However, despite everything, she was determined to complete the education that stopped the day she was captured by the LRA. She told us her dream was to become a social worker, to help her community and young girls in particular. She became one of our Lionesses.
Network for Africa’s Lioness Fund works specifically with former abductees like Joanna, supporting them as they continue their education. We pay school fees and assist with the care of children born to them through rape. Our lionesses, and a small number of young male returnees, are also given support in coping with their traumatic experiences.
During her time at school, Joanna became a mentor to younger girls and she supported other Lionesses who had endured sexual violence at the hands of the LRA. By 2013, she told staff that she felt she had hope and was no longer suicidal. In 2015, Joanna graduated from university with a Diploma in Social Work, and she now works with refugees who have come to Uganda, escaping violence in South Sudan. She also helps internally displaced people in the same area where she escaped from the LRA.
We are proud of Joanna and what she has achieved. We know that her experiences, and her resilience and her determination will make her an excellent social worker.
There are many former abductees in Northern Uganda like Joanna. They continue to have their lives blighted by their experiences. They have missed out on much of their schooling, and often suffer from physical and mental health problems. In the worst cases, they struggle to function, to make a living and to support themselves and their children. Unfortunately, some of them continue to be subjected to domestic violence. Unaware of their rights, they feel trapped and unable to leave.
Joanna’s achievements and her resolve illustrate how women and girls are victimised, and how sexual violence becomes a weapon of war. However, investment in her education and well-being has allowed her to make a very real difference to her community. Out of an almost unimaginable horror, comes hope.
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