Commentary Violence

Ester’s Eyes: Returning from Uganda’s War as a Bush Wife

Stigma Shame and Sexuality Series

Ester Abeja wants to show her face as a victim of gang rape, of abduction, of torture and daily violence, to be the image of a woman who has been forced to kill her own child and her own people.

This post is by Lauren Wolfe, and is part of Tsk Tsk: Stigma, Shame, and Sexuality, a series hosted by Gender Across Borders and cross-posted with Rewire in partnership with Ipas.

She wants her face to be seen. It’s not what you might expect—she’s not trying to get justice or retribution. Ester Abeja wants to show her face as a victim of gang rape, of abduction, of torture and daily violence, to be the image of a woman who has been forced to kill her own child and her own people. She wants to be acknowledged. She is a survivor of Uganda’s long-running war, but Abeja knows she is also a symbol.

When I first saw Abeja’s photo, I studied her oversized brown T-shirt, uneven hair, and mournful eyes. I wondered how a woman survives what she has and raises five children, one of whom is the product of her forced time in the bush with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). She has a 6-year-old boy who is the outcome of rape. Kids like hers are known as “Kony’s children,” after Joseph Kony, the LRA leader whose pseudo-religiosity has reportedly led him to feats of spirituality like covering himself with termites or spearing himself with the sun for days.

I came across Abeja’s story because of a Ugandan blogger named Rosebell Kagumire, who the U.S. Department of State recently nominated as an Internet Freedom Fellow. Kagumire wrote about Abeja after meeting her at a gynecological health screening in Lira, in northern Uganda, at the beginning of August. A Kampala-based nonprofit called Isis-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE) will soon offer surgeries to 40 women to fix everything from uterine prolapse to fibroids to UTIs. Program Manager Helen Kezie-Nwoha said her group screened more than 400 women in a few days; it was the first time most of them had seen a gynecologist in years—local hospitals have lain fallow from the 23-plus years of fighting, and are often staffed with only a midwife if anything. Abeja is suffering from uterine prolapse as a result of her multiple rapes. In her case, her uterus is hanging out of her vagina. Her surgery will cost about US$200, Kezie-Nwoha said.

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“When they abducted me, I had my 1-year-old baby girl and the boy,” Abeja told Kagumire, explaining that rebels took her with only two of her six children. “A few kilometers away from home, they forced me to kill my child. I hit her head on the tree and she died.” After this, the rebels raped her. Abjea said she could not remember how many men there were but that there may have been 10 to 15. The men “pushed different objects” into her and cut her with machetes as she was attacked, she said.

Abeja showed Kagumire scars on her arms and thighs. She said she does not know what happened to her son.

The LRA rebels then took Abeja forcibly as a “wife,” a not uncommon outcome for women caught up in Uganda’s war. Also not uncommon is sexual assault—93.5 percent of forced wives said they were sexually abused or forced to have sex with a man, according to a study funded by UNICEF and published on the blog of Christopher Blattman, a Yale professor of political science and economics. During her four years as a bush wife, Abeja was also as a soldier, telling Kagumire she was forced to kill more than 40 people. Her eyes have seen unimaginable atrocity. Studying the two-dimensional face in her photograph, I asked myself: How can she live fully ever again?

“Being forced to do the unthinkable—such as kill someone, especially one’s own child—in my view causes a permanent scar in the psyche that separates that person from the rest of the human race,” said Karestan Koenen, an associate professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and at Harvard University who studies trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. Recovery is compromised because the victim is not just a victim, or someone who is wronged, she is also a perpetrator. She cannot feel self-righteous or merit compassion because of the crimes she has committed.”

Beyond this self-abnegation, reintegration into home villages is difficult to impossible for many women, partly because the community doesn’t want to fold back in what they see as violent criminals—not to mention that rebels, including the abducted women, were often forced to kill their relatives in their own villages.

“Those who were never abducted don’t understand,” Kagumire told me. “They look at the women as rebels. They were forced to kill and have no support system.”

So after the double whammy of self-hatred and outside rejection, the women also face physical obstacles in returning home. They have often been bullied out of the rights to their land while they were gone, said Kagumire, and have a hard time finding work or government support to get them on their feet. The fact that they had been “married” while in the bush leaves them in a precarious spot as women who appear to have made a choice to leave their lives behind, to have a “husband,” and to return home with outsider children.

“Everybody knows that in the bush they had husbands—they don’t even see that they were forced,” Kagumire said. And when they return home, she said, “Men want nothing to do with them.”

Another brick that constructs the psychological fortress in which these women become imprisoned is the refugee camp they inhabit after returning from the bush, often for years. More than 2 million people were confined to such camps in Uganda in the last decade, according to the UN Refugee Agency, and about 250,000 internally displaced people remain in camps or transit centers—where social norms have disintegrated, HIV rages, and taking handouts becomes essential to survival. These lengthy stops along the way home are often the sites of heavy drinking and drug use, and sexual violence, according to the UN.

“We think of violence against women as being associated with war, which it is, but it also increases in post-conflict settings—in camps or when returning to home communities,” explained Gitta Zomorodi, a program associate who works on Africa for the Jewish World Service, a New York-based international development organization. “Women have taken over as the heads of home; men are feeling emasculated. Domestic violence increases.”

Abeja told Kagumire in their meeting that “many times” she has considered killing her husband, who abandoned her with all their children to take two other wives. With no family but the child she brought home from her captivity, the defeat shows in her slumped shoulders. I worry that even if Isis-WICCE raises money for her surgery, Abeja has a life of pain to face ahead of her. Koenen agrees.

“The biggest determinant of recovery is the response the victim receives from her community,” Koenen said. “The stigma prevents the community from giving her a supportive response, and unless addressed directly, my view of her future is dire.”

Yet by having shown her face, Abeja has let us know she is here, she is alive, she is trying to live. And by having written about her and shown the world her photograph, Kagumire has not only given Abeja visibility, she has acknowledged that she and women like her have endured horrific violence. The blogger has told a large community—the international community—that we must look directly at these women. That it is time to stare into their mournful eyes and not turn away. It is time to act.

To donate money toward Ester Abeja’s or 39 other Ugandan women’s surgeries, please contact Isis-WICCE’s Lorna Nakato at nlorna@isis.or.ug.

Lauren Wolfe is the director of the War Against Women Project on sexualized violence and conflict at the Women’s Media Center in New York. She is the former senior editor of the Committee to Protect Journalists, where she wrote “The Silencing Crime: Sexual Violence and Journalists.”

News Law and Policy

Freed From a Post-Miscarriage Prison Sentence, El Salvador Woman Could Face More Time Behind Bars

Kathy Bougher

Maria Teresa Rivera was convicted of aggravated homicide in 2012 following an obstetrical complication during an unattended birth the previous year, which had resulted in the death of her fetus. On May 20, Judge Martín Rogel Zepeda overturned her conviction. Now, however, a legal threat could return her to prison.

Read more of our coverage on the campaign for Las 17, the 17 Salvadoran women imprisoned on abortion-related charges, here.

Two months ago, Maria Teresa Rivera was released from a 40-year prison sentence after spending more than four years behind bars. Rivera was convicted of aggravated homicide in 2012 following an obstetrical complication during an unattended birth the previous year, which had resulted in the death of her fetus. On May 20, Judge Martín Rogel Zepeda overturned her conviction. Now, however, a legal threat could return her to prison.

Rivera is part of the group known as “Las 17,” Salvadoran women who have been unjustly convicted and imprisoned based on El Salvador’s highly restrictive anti-abortion laws.

The government-employed prosecutor in Rivera’s case, María del Carmen Elias Campos, has appealed Rogel Zepeda’s decision overturning the original 2012 conviction and allowing Rivera to return to her now-11-year-old son. If the appeal is granted, Rogel Zepeda’s decision will be reviewed by a panel of justices. An unfavorable decision at that point could lead to a new trial.

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“I just don’t understand the prosecutor’s motivation for this appeal,” Rivera told Rewire in an interview. “We are very poor, and there is no one else but me to provide income for our family.”

According to Rivera’s attorney, Victor Hugo Mata, the government tends to require “preventive imprisonment” of the accused during the trial process, which could last months or years. This “preventive imprisonment” could begin as soon as the panel approves an appeal.

Although “the law clearly allows the prosecution to appeal,” Morena Herrera, president of the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto, told Rewire in an interview, “This appeal that questions the decision of the court that granted [Rivera] her freedom is not looking for the truth.”

Herrera pointed out that the witness for the prosecution, a government forensic specialist who performed the fetal autopsy, determined that the cause of fetal death was perinatal asphyxia. “At the trial the prosecutor’s own witness told the prosecutor that he could not accuse a person of a crime in this case of perinatal asphyxia,” Herrera recounted.

“So, if her own witness spoke against [the prosecutor] and said she was not correct, it seems to me that this appeal … is proof that the prosecutor is not seeking either justice or the truth.”

Hugo Mata explained to Rewire that the prosecutor’s appeal asserts that Judge Rogel Zepeda “did not employ the legal standard of ‘sana crítica,’ or ‘solid legal judgment’ in evaluating the evidence presented.”

Hugo Mata vigorously contests the prosecutor’s allegation, noting that the judge’s written decision went into significant legal detail on all the issues raised at the hearing. He believes that a responsible court should see that “there was nothing capricious or contradictory in his highly detailed and legally well-founded decision.”

The three-judge panel has ten working days, or until approximately July 12, to render a decision as to whether to grant the initial appeal, although such deadlines are not always rigidly observed.  If the panel does not grant the appeal, the decision to overturn the conviction will stand.

The Agrupación, including Hugo Mata, believes that the appeals panel will be swayed by knowing that the case is receiving widespread attention. As part of a campaign to bring attention to the appeal process, the Agrupación has set up an email address to which supporters can send messages letting the court know that justice for Rivera is of national and international importance.

“What most worries me is leaving my son alone again,” Rivera told Rewire. “I was forced to abandon him for four and a half years, and he suffered greatly during that time. He is just beginning to recover now, but he never wants to be apart from me. He tells me every day, ‘Mommy, you’re never going to leave me again, are you?’ I had to tell him about this appeal, but I promised him everything would be all right.”

“I was abandoned by my mother at the age of five and grew up in orphanages,” Rivera concluded. “I don’t want the same life for my son.”

Commentary Human Rights

A Sterilized Peruvian Woman Seeks Justice From the Americas’ Highest Human Rights Court

Cynthia Soohoo & Suzannah Phillips

I.V.'s case, I.V. v. Bolivia, illustrates the all-too-common scenario of medical providers making decisions on behalf of women who are deemed unfit or unable to make their own choices.

In 2000, a Peruvian political refugee referred to by her initials, “I.V.,” went to a Bolivian public hospital to deliver her third child. According to court documents, the doctors decided during the cesarean section that a future pregnancy would be dangerous for I.V. and performed a tubal ligation—for which they claimed they had I.V.’s consent. When I.V. learned that she had been sterilized two days later, she said, she was devastated.

After her complaint against the surgeon who sterilized her was dismissed by Bolivian courts, I.V. brought her case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IA Court), which heard oral arguments earlier this month. In a region where there are widespread reports of forced sterilization, the case is the first time the court will consider whether nonconsensual sterilization is a human rights violation.

The IA Court should hand down its decision in the coming months. A favorable ruling in this case by the IA Court—the highest human rights court in the Americas—could require Bolivia to, among other things, pay reparations to I.V., investigate and possibly punish the doctors who sterilized her, and take steps to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. The decision will also have ramifications across the region, establishing a binding legal precedent for the 25 countries that are party to the American Convention on Human Rights.

I.V. v. Bolivia provides an important opportunity for the IA Court to condemn forced sterilization and to adopt clear standards concerning informed consent. It would also be joining U.N. human rights bodies and the European Court of Human Rights in recognizing that forced sterilization violates fundamental human rights to personal integrity and autonomy, to be free from gender discrimination and violence, to privacy and family life, and, as CUNY Law School’s Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic and Women Enabled International recently argued in our amicus brief to the IA Court, to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or torture.

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Further, the European Court and U.N. experts recognize that possible health risk from a future pregnancy cannot justify nonconsensual sterilization because there are alternative contraceptive methods to prevent pregnancy and women must be given the time and information needed to make an informed choice about sterilization. The IA Court should make similar findings.

Unlike the sterilization of Mexican immigrant women in the United States in the 1970s, recently portrayed in the documentary No Más Bebés, I.V.’s case doesn’t appear to involve a broad governmental policy of sterilizing poor or immigrant women. But it illustrates the all-too-common scenario of medical providers making decisions on behalf of women who are deemed unfit or unable to make their own choices.

Indeed, forced and coerced sterilization is disproportionately perpetrated around the world against women in stigmatized groups, such as women living with HIV, poor women, ethnic or national minorities, or women with disabilities because some health-care providers believe that such women should not have children. Whether driven by animosity against certain women, stereotypes that these women are unfit to become parents, or a paternalistic notion that “doctor knows best,” the end result is the same: Women are permanently robbed of their capacity to have children without their consent.

The parties contest whether I.V. orally consented to sterilization during her c-section. But even if she did so, medical ethical standards and decisions from U.N. human rights bodies and the European Court make clear that consent obtained during labor or immediately preceding or after delivery cannot be valid because the circumstances surrounding delivery—due to pain, anesthesia, or other factors—are inherently inconsistent with voluntary patient choice.

I.V. delivered at a public hospital that predominantly treats indigent women, many of whom are indigenous or migrants. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—which effectively acts as a court of first instance for the IA Court—considered the case before it went to the IA Court and noted the special vulnerability of migrant women seeking health care in Bolivia, given their reliance on public services and the lack of care options. It found that I.V.’s medical team was influenced by “gender stereotypes on the inability of women to make autonomous” reproductive decisions. It further concluded that the decision to sterilize I.V. without proper consent reflected notions that the medical staff was “empowered to take better medical decisions than the woman concerned regarding control over reproduction.”

Sixteen years after her sterilization, I.V. still acutely feels the emotional and psychological toll of having been sterilized. Because of the severity of physical and mental harms that forced sterilization imposes upon women, the Inter-American Court should join the European Court of Human Rights and U.N. human rights experts in recognizing that forced sterilization constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and may constitute torture.

In addition to condemning forced sterilization, the IA Court should recognize the multiple human rights violations I.V. suffered. The Inter-American human rights system protects women from gender-based discrimination and violence and violations of the right to personal integrity, information, privacy, and family life, all of which are at issue in this case.