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.”

Commentary Politics

It’s Not Just Trump: The Right Wing’s Increasing Reliance on Violence and Intimidation as a Path to Power

Jodi Jacobson

Republicans have tried to pass Trump's most recent comments off as a joke because to accept the reality of that rhetoric would mean going to the core of their entire party platform and their strategies. The GOP would have to come to terms with the toll its power plays are taking on the country writ large.

This week, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump stated that, if Hillary Clinton were elected and able to nominate justices to the Supreme Court, “Second Amendment people” might be able to do something about it. After blaming the media for “being dishonest” in reporting his statement, the Trump campaign has since tried to pass the comment off as a joke. However characterized, Trump’s statement is not only part of his own election strategy, but also a strategy that has become synonymous with those of candidates, legislators, and groups affiliated with the positions of the GOP.

To me, the phrase “Second Amendment people” translates to those reflexively opposed to any regulation of gun sales and ownership and who feel they need guns to arm themselves against the government. I’m not alone: The comment was widely perceived as an implicit threat of violence against the Democratic presidential nominee. Yet, GOP party leaders have failed to condemn his comment, with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) agreeing with the Trump campaign that it was “a joke gone bad.”

Republicans have tried to pass it off as a joke because to accept the reality of their rhetoric would mean going to the core of their entire party platform and their strategies. The GOP would have to come to terms with the toll its power plays are taking on the country writ large. The rhetoric is part of a longer and increasingly dangerous effort by the GOP, aided by corporate-funded right-wing organizations and talk show hosts, to de-legitimize the federal government, undermine confidence in our voting system, play on the fears held by a segment of the population about tyranny and the loss of liberty, and intimidate people Republican leaders see as political enemies.

Ironically, while GOP candidates and leaders decry the random violence of terrorist groups like Daeshitself an outgrowth of desperate circumstances, failed states, and a perceived or real loss of powerthey are perpetuating the idea of loss and desperation in the United States and inciting others to random violence against political opponents.

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Trump’s “Second Amendment” comment came after a week of efforts by the Trump campaign to de-legitimize the 2016 presidential election well before a single vote has been cast. On Monday, August 1, after polls showed Trump losing ground, he asserted in an Ohio campaign speech that “I’m afraid the election’s gonna be rigged, I have to be honest.”

Manufactured claims of widespread voter fraud—a problem that does not exist, as several analyses have shown—have nonetheless been repeatedly pushed by the GOP since the 2008 election. Using these disproven claims as support, GOP legislatures in 20 states have passed new voter restrictions since 2010, and still the GOP claims elections are suspect, stoking the fears of average voters seeking easy answers to complex problems and feeding the paranoia of separatist and white nationalist groups. Taking up arms against an illegitimate government is, after all, exactly what “Second Amendment remedies” are for.

Several days before Trump’s Ohio speech, Trump adviser Roger Stone suggested that the result of the election might be “illegitimate,” leading to “widespread civil disobedience” and a “bloodbath,” a term I personally find chilling.

Well before these comments were made, there was the hate-fest otherwise known as the Republican National Convention (RNC), during which both speakers and supporters variously called for Clinton to be imprisoned or shot, and during which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a man not widely known for his high ethical standards or sense of accountability, led a mock trial of Hillary Clinton to chants from the crowd of “lock her up.” And that was the tame part.

The number of times Trump has called for or supported violence at his rallies is too long to catalogue here. His speeches are rife with threats to punch opponents; after the Democratic National Convention, he threatened to hit speakers who critiqued his policies “so hard their heads would spin.” He also famously promised to pay the legal fees of anyone who hurt protesters at his rallies and defended former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski after allegations surfaced that Lewandowski had assaulted a female Breitbart reporter.

A recent New York Times video compiled over a year of reporting at Trump rallies revealed the degree to which many of Trump’s supporters unapologetically express violence and hatred—for women, immigrants, and people of color. And Trump eschews any responsibility for what has transpired, repeatedly claiming he does not condone violence—his own rhetoric, that of his associates, and other evidence notwithstanding.

Still, to focus only on Trump is to ignore a broader and deeper acceptance, even encouragement of, incitement to violence by the GOP that began long before the 2016 campaign.

In 2008, in what may appear to be a now forgotten but eerily prescient peek at the 2016 RNC, then-GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and his running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, used race-baiting and hints at violence to gin up their crowds. First, Palin accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” a claim that became part of her stump speech. As a result, Frank Rich then wrote in the New York Times:

At McCain-Palin rallies, the raucous and insistent cries of “Treason!” and “Terrorist!” and “Kill him!” and “Off with his head!” as well as the uninhibited slinging of racial epithets, are actually something new in a campaign that has seen almost every conceivable twist. They are alarms. Doing nothing is not an option.

Nothing was in fact done. No price was paid by GOP candidates encouraging this kind of behavior.

In 2009, during congressional debates on the Affordable Care Act, opponents of the health-care law, who’d been fed a steady diet of misleading and sensationalist information, were encouraged by conservative groups like FreedomWorks and Right Principles, as well as talk show hosts such as Sean Hannity, to disrupt town hall meetings on the legislation held throughout the country. Protesters turned up at some town hall meetings armed with rifles with the apparent intention of intimidating those who, in supporting health reform, disagreed with them. In some cases, what began as nasty verbal attacks turned violent. As the New York Times then reported: “[M]embers of Congress have been shouted down, hanged in effigy and taunted by crowds. In several cities, noisy demonstrations have led to fistfights, arrests and hospitalizations.”

In 2010, as first reported by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle, in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), suggested that armed insurrection would be the answer if “this Congress keeps going the way it is.” In response to a request for clarification by the host of the radio show on which she made her comments, Angle said:

You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years.

I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

Also in 2010, Palin, by then a failed vice-presidential candidate, created a map “targeting” congressional Democrats up for re-election, complete with crosshairs. Palin announced the map to her supporters with this exhortation: “Don’t retreat. Instead, reload!”

One of the congresspeople on that map was Arizona Democrat Gabby Giffords, who in the 2010 Congressional race was challenged by Jesse Kelly, a Palin-backed Tea Party candidate. Kelly’s campaign described an event this way:

Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.

Someone took this literally. In January 2011, Jared Lee Loughner went on a shooting rampage in a Tuscon grocery store at which Giffords was meeting with constituents. Loughner killed six people and injured 13 others, including Giffords who, as a result of permanent disability resulting from the shooting, resigned from Congress. Investigators later found that Loughner had for months become obsessed with government conspiracy theories such as those spread by GOP and Tea Party candidates.

These events didn’t stop GOP candidates from fear-mongering and suggesting “remedies.”  To the contrary, the goading continued. As the Huffington Post‘s Sam Stein wrote in 2011:

Florida Senate candidate Mike McCalister, who is running against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), offered a variation of the much-lampooned line during a speech before the Palms West Republican Club earlier this week.

“I get asked sometimes where do I stand on the Second and 10th Amendment, and I have a little saying,” he declared. “We need a sign at every harbor, every airport and every road entering our state: ‘You’re entering a 10th Amendment-owned and -operated state, and justice will be served with the Second Amendment.’” [Emphasis added.]

These kinds of threats by the GOP against other legislators and even the president have gone unpunished by the leadership of the party. Not a word has come from either House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decrying these statements, and the hyperbole and threats have only continued. Recently, for example, former Illinois GOP Congressman Joe Walsh tweeted and then deleted this threat to the president after the killing of five police officers in Dallas, Texas:

“3 Dallas cops killed, 7 wounded,” former congressman Joe Walsh, an Illinois Republican, wrote just before midnight in a tweet that is no longer on his profile. “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”
Even after the outcry over his recent remarks, Trump has escalated the rhetoric against both President Obama and against Clinton, calling them the “founders of ISIS.” And again no word from the GOP leadership.
This rhetoric is part of a pattern used by the right wing within and outside elections. Anti-choice groups, for example, consistently misrepresent reproductive health care writ large, and abortion specifically. They “target” providers with public lists of names, addresses, and other personal information. They lie, intimidate, and make efforts to both vilify and stigmatize doctors. When this leads to violence, as David Cohen wrote in Rolling Stone this week, the anti-choice groups—and their GOP supporters—shrug off any responsibility.
Some gun rights groups also use this tactic of intimidation and targeting to silence critique. In 2011, for example, 40 men armed with semi-automatic weapons and other guns surrounded a restaurant in Arlington, Texas, in which a mothers’ group had gathered to discuss gun regulations. “Second Amendment people” have spit upon women arguing for gun regulation and threatened them with rape. In one case, a member of these groups waited in the dark at the home of an advocate and then sought to intimidate her as she approached in her wheelchair.
The growing resort to violence and intimidation in our country is a product of an environment in which leading politicians not only look the other way as their constituents and affiliated groups use such tactics to press a political point, but in which the leaders themselves are complicit.
These are dangerous games being played by a major political party in its own quest for power. Whether or not Donald Trump is the most recent and most bombastic evidence of what has become of the GOP, it is the leadership and the elected officials of the party who are condoning and perpetuating an environment in which insinuations of violence will increasingly lead to acts of violence. The more that the right uses and suggests violence as a method of capturing, consolidating, and holding power, the more they become like the very terrorists they claim to be against.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: A Nursing Home With a Healthy Attitude Toward Sex

Martha Kempner

A nursing home understands that its elderly residents are still sexual beings; New York City is amping up its youth sexual health outreach with emojis of eggplants and monkeys; and if forced to choose between eating and sex, a good number of people pick food.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Sex Is Not Just for the Young

The New York Times recently profiled a nursing home with a sex-positive attitude for its residents. The Hebrew Home at Riverdale adopted its “sexual expression policy” in 1995 after a nurse walked in on two residents having sex. She asked her boss, Daniel Reingold, what she should do. He said, “Tiptoe out and close the door.”

Reingold, the president of RiverSpring Health (which runs the nursing home), said that aging includes a lot of loss—from the loss of spouses and friends to the loss of independence and mobility. But he believes the loss of physical touch and intimacy does not have to be part of getting older.

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The policy acknowledges that residents have the right to seek out and engage in consensual acts of sexual expression with other residents or with visitors. The policy ensures that staff understand that their role is not to prevent sexual contact. In fact, some of the staff like to play cupid for residents. Audrey Davison, an 85-year-old resident, said that the staff let her sleep in her boyfriend’s room, and one aide even made them a “Do Not Disturb” sign for his door. She added: “I enjoyed it and he was a very good lover.”

Still, there are complicating factors to dating in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities. Some residents may be married to people who don’t live in the facility, and others may be suffering from memory loss, dementia, or Alzheimer’s, which can raise issues of consent. Hebrew Home’s policy states that Alzheimer’s patients can give consent under certain circumstances.

Though not all nursing homes have formal policies about sex, many acknowledge that their residents are or want to be sexually active and are working to help residents have a safe and consensual experience. Dr. Cheryl Phillips, a senior vice president at LeadingAge, an organization which represents nursing homes and others who provide elder care, also told the New York Times that this generation of older adults is different: “They’ve been having sex—that’s part of who they are—and just because they’re moving into a nursing home doesn’t mean they’re going to stop having sex.”

Of course, not all residents are lucky in love when they move in. Hebrew Home says that about 40 of its 870 residents are in relationships. Staff are trying to help the others. They set up happy hours, a prom, and have started a dating service called G-Date (for “Grandparent Date”). So far it hasn’t been too successful in making matches, but the staff is convinced that someday their efforts will pay off with a wedding.

Can Emojis Connect Youth to Sexual Health Services?

New York City’s public hospital system, known as Health & Hospitals, provides confidential sexual health services—including pregnancy tests, contraception, and tests for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)—for young people 12 and older regardless of their ability to pay, immigration status, or sexual orientation. Health & Hospitals served 152,000 patients last year, but its leaders think it could do even more if more young people were aware of the services offered.

As a way to speak the language of young people, Health & Hospitals launched a campaign starring emojis in July.

The emojis are expected to reach 2.4 million young people in New York City through social media including Facebook and Instagram. The emojis include an eggplant, a monkey covering his eyes, and, of course, some birds and bees. The online ads read, “Need someone to talk to about ‘it’?”

When young people click on the emojis, they will be taken to the Health & Hospitals youth website, which explains available services and how to find accessible providers.

Dr. Ram Raju, president and CEO of NYC Health & Hospitals, said in a press release that the organization provides nonjudgmental services to youth: “Whether it’s birth control, pregnancy testing, emergency contraception or depression screening, the public health system has affordable services in local community health centers, where we speak your language, understand your culture and respect your privacy.”

But some worry that these emojis are confusing. Elizabeth Schroeder, a sex educator and trainer, told the New York Times that while she applauded the effort, she questioned if the images chosen were the best to convey the message.

We here at This Week in Sex have to agree and admit the images confuse us as well. The monkey is cute, but what does it have to do with STDs?

Choosing Between Appetites, Many Pick Food

Good food or good sex? These two sources of pleasure are rarely at odds with each other, but if they ever are, which would you choose?

A new survey, by advertising agency Havas Worldwide, posed this very question to almost 12,000 adults in 37 countries across the globe. The results show that about half of adults (46 percent of men and 51 percent of women) believe that food can be as pleasurable as sex. And one-third would choose a great dinner at a restaurant rather than sex; women were more likely to make this choice (42 percent compared with 26 percent of men).

Millennials were also more likely to make this choice than those slightly older Gen-Xers (35 percent to 30 percent). Of course, it’s hard to tell whether this says more about their sex lives or their eating habits.

 

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