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Gender & Women's Studies|College of Arts & Sciences

Oak Foundation and Pro Victimis Grants on Girl Mothers and Their Children

Girl Mothers in Armed Groups and their Children in Northern Uganda and Sierra Leone/Liberia: Participatory Approaches to Reintegration 

Funded by the Oak Foundation and Pro Victimis Foundation Geneva, Switzerland,

PAR Girl Mothers’ Project

Participatory action research is “an approach to research that aims at promoting change; occurs through a cyclic process of planning, data collection, and analysis… and in which members of the group being studied participate as partners in all phases of the research, including design, data collection, analysis, and dissemination." (Brown, D.R., Hernandez, A., Saint-Jean, F. Evans, S., et. al. (2008). Participatory action research pilot study of urban health disparities using rapid assessment response and evaluation. American Journal of Public Health 98 [1] 28-38.) The heart of participatory methodology, based on the work of Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970) places ownership and leadership in the hands of those affected. This is a radical departure from the usual a priori establishment of criteria by outsiders who measure whether programs are successful. 

This PAR seeks to deepen understanding of how community-based participatory methods in post-conflict settings may be instrumental in empowering girl mothers to change the circumstances of their lives. Our overall goal is to improve the reintegration and well-being of girl mothers by involving them as key actors in changing their situations and building broad community support for this process. Over the project’s duration, girl mothers will increasingly take on leadership roles to become advocates on the issues facing them. 

We use a partnership approach in which the girls do activities that then provide some documentation, and agency staff and in-country academics collaborate with the girl mothers to capture indicators. Organizers of the PAR are Susan McKay (University of Wyoming), Angela Veale (National University, Cork, Ireland), Michael Wessells (Columbia University, Randolph Macon College, and Christian Children’s Fund), and Miranda Worthen (University of California, Berkeley). Agency partners are: Save the Children Liberia, THINK (Liberia), Christian Brothers (Sierra Leone), Christian Children’s Fund (Sierra Leone), Council of Churches in Sierra Leone, NNePCA (Sierra Leone), Caritas (Uganda), Concerned Parents Association (Uganda), Save the Children Uganda, TPO (Uganda), and World Vision (Uganda).

Background to the PAR

The PAR had its antecedents in recommendations contained in Susan McKay and Dyan Mazurana’s book (2004) Where are the girls? Girls in fighting forces in Northern Uganda, Sierra Leone and Mozambique: Their lives during and after war which was published by Rights and Democracy. (PDF file in publications). A key finding concerned the risk status of girl mothers (those who conceive and/or give birth prior to 18 years of age). These risks include stigmatization, lack of health care, food, shelter and clothing, inadequate livelihoods, and the physical and psychosocial health and development of their children. 
Subsequently, another Rockefeller Foundation sponsored conference was held in Bellagio, Italy in October 2006 organized by Susan McKay, Angela Veale, and Mike Wessells (Bellagio2006). 

Because of their precarious situations, girls who return from armed groups to communities frequently turn to prostitution and/or transactional sex for survival. Among the recommendations from McKay and Mazurana’s study were that preventive policies and programs be developed for returning girl mothers through psychosocial, health and economic initiatives. Importantly, community-based organizations should be involved in promoting healthy reintegration and supporting the girls’ initiatives. 

Exploratory field work was then undertaken in October 2003, with partial funding from a University of Wyoming basic research grant. Four investigators (Susan McKay, Mary Burman, Maria Gonsalves, and Miranda Worthen) did field work in communities in western Sierra Leone (Kambia and Mambolo) to better understand the situations of girl mothers returning from armed groups (see McKay, S., Burman, M., Gonsalves, M., & Worthen, M., May-June 2004, Known but Invisible: Girl Mothers Returning from Fighting Forces. Child Soldiers Newsletter, Issue 6, 10-11; Burman, M., & McKay, S. (2007). Marginalization of girl mothers returning from fighting forces in Sierra Leone. International Nursing Review, 54(4) 316-323.). 

The next initiative was an April 2005 conference in Bellagio Italy sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, organized by Susan McKay and Malia Robinson. Participants included international experts on child soldiers, national staff of NGOs carrying out programs related to girl mothers, and researchers who examined concerns about girl mothers and their children and made recommendations for future actions on their behalf. 

Context for the PAR

Although international awareness about the presence of girls in armed groups is increasing, far too little attention has been given to girls’ recruitment, the diverse roles girls play within armed groups, and the aftermath. Their participation, often by abduction, is a global phenomenon but is most evident in contemporary African armed conflicts. Following the signing of peace agreements, girls are often discriminated against within processes aimed at reintegrating formerly-recruited children. These girls and, even more so, girl mothers who return with children conceived through rape and forced “bush marriages,” infrequently receive disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) benefits; supports they do receive are not usually tailored to their specific age- and gender-related needs.

In Sierra Leone, Northern Uganda, and Liberia, among other countries in sub-Saharan Africa and throughout the world, communities are poorly equipped to respond in positive ways to returning girl mothers and to other war- affected young mothers in the community who are vulnerable because they may be unmarried, poor, and/or lack family support. Until recently, few NGOs have acknowledged the extent of their marginalization and advocated for girl mothers by developing programming. 
Too often, donor assistance has been focused on specific categories of vulnerable children, an approach that adds to social divisions and does not create sustainable change. Further, only recently have child protection agencies understood that to be useful, girls’ reintegration should be developed within the context of the communities to which they return with their children since so few girls go through official DDR processes.

The root causes of girl mothers’ difficult reintegration situations exist at both micro and macro levels and are very much tied to gender discrimination within societal structures, both traditional and contemporary, that privilege males over females and profoundly affects the achievement of girls’ human rights. This discrimination is deeply embedded within political, economic, and legal systems of the three countries (Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda) where this project is being implemented, as well as internationally. The international community has contributed to this discrimination by taking service-oriented, male friendly approaches to DDR rather than being sensitive to the presence of girls in armed groups and identifying the patterns of their participation and return. Further, reintegration processes are adult driven so there is little listening to youth to learn from and be sensitive to their perspectives. Thus, few efforts have been made to learn from girl mothers how they view reintegration and what their distinctive needs are in regard to reintegration. 

What Girls Experience When They Return

Most girls from armed groups return directly to communities (“spontaneous reintegration”) where typically they keep low profiles. They and their children are usually marginalized, stigmatized, and neglected. Also, girls who have been raped (the majority of formerly-abducted African girls) are often believed to carry bad spirits that can cause profound problems for them, their families, and communities. Their perceived spiritual contamination is a major source of stigmatization.

Girl mothers, whether returned from armed groups or vulnerable within their communities because of their life circumstances and/or effects of armed conflict, have limited opportunities to secure economic livelihoods (especially in work that is atypical for females), access education and/or skills training, and obtain primary health care. They are often considered unmarriageable because of stigma surrounding their sexual activity and/or abuse and due to having children. Being unmarriageable promotes further stigmatization because marriage is a societal norm that young women are expected to fulfill. Isolated as a result and finding survival very difficult, many girls turn to sex work which results in even more vulnerability to health problems and sexual violence in communities or internally-displaced persons’ (IDP) camps.

Girl mothers, whether or not they have been in armed groups, may lack basic means of survival such as life skills and social networks. Many suffer from psychosocial and spiritual effects and multiple impacts of gender-based violence which are health related (for example, genital injuries, sexually-transmitted diseases, and pelvic inflammatory disease). They and their children seldom receive primary health care or are tested and treated for sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. 
The well-being and lifetime trajectory of the children of these girl mothers is poorly understood. Concerns exist that the children’s normal growth and development may be impacted because of their marginal status and that their stigmatization may have long-term effects. Effects may also vary by gender – for example, in June 2007 at a Uganda field site, girls reported that boy children of girl mothers are more stigmatized than girl children because families view boys as draining resources since a bride price (in the form of land and other goods) must be provided when the boys marry. 


Year 1 of the PAR (November 1, 2006 to October 31, 2007)

Funded by Oak Foundation (Geneva) with conference funding from Compton Foundation (California) and UNICEF West Africa (Dakar)

In the summer of 2006, prior to the second Rockefeller conference, McKay, Veale and Wessells applied to the Oak Foundation for funding for a community-based participatory action project focusing on girl mothers’ reintegration in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda. This project was funded for one year by the Oak Foundation and approved by the University of Wyoming Institutional Review Board (IRB) for projects involving human subjects. Additionally, UNICEF West Africa funded a conference in Freetown for Sierra Leone team members, and Compton Foundation (California) provided partial funding for a conference held in Kampala in October 2007.

During the first year of the PAR, twenty-two field sites were identified by partner NGOs – 10 are in Northern Uganda, 8 in Sierra Leone, and 4 in Liberia.  The focus to date has been primarily upon organizing the girls’ activities, defining the issues, gathering information, engaging with participants, learning from the girls’ perspectives, facilitating the establishment of priorities through participatory dialogue and collective decision making, and enabling new behaviours that support their empowerment and ability to act on their own behalf. Bringing groups of girl mothers together as a prelude to social action is a key step in supporting them. Meeting with other girl mothers and realizing community support for their activities has already been shown to be empowering, as evidenced by the girl mothers’ testimonies.

Among many activities, girls organized drama productions and song, developed micro-enterprises to begin addressing issues of economic survival, and participated in health education activities. Girls decided how they wanted to improve their situations and were supported in these initiatives by project field workers and community advisory committees.

The PAR was developed to deepen understanding of how participatory methods may be instrumental in empowering girl mothers to change the circumstances of their lives.  Its focus is upon social transformation of young mothers’ lives through their empowerment and, in the process, tackling deep- seated cultural attitudes that stigmatize them. 


Years 2 and 3 of the PAR (November 1, 2007 to October 31, 2009)

Funded by Oak and Pro Victimis Foundations

Through their participatory activities, the girls are developing their own objectives, implementing activities, establishing indicators, and defining ways of measuring meaningful changes in their lives. Because of the variations in their contexts, the objectives and indicators they develop will vary by site and due to the girls’ creativity.

By design, the PAR invites the girls to develop their own ways of identifying and documenting (e.g, through song, dance, or drama) what counts as meaningful changes in their lives and their communities. In this respect, it is impossible to predefine exact objectives and indicators that apply to all the girls’ projects in the 22 field sites. Accordingly, the project organizers developed broad, flexible project objectives, activities, and indicators that may emerge, depending upon the focus at each field site. These are best regarded not as prescriptive but as indicative of the kinds of activities we expect to see based on prior learning about the context and the girls’ perspectives.

PAR Objectives for Years 2 to 3 are to: 1) identify ways for girl mothers and their children who return from armed groups and other vulnerable girl mothers and their children experience greater social acceptance and decreased stigma, and develop sustainable livelihoods and roles as contributing members of the community; 2) ensure communities support girl mother and their children, thereby decreasing their marginalization and stigmatization; and 3) share participatory approaches and project results to influence participant agencies, other child protection agencies and networks in the region and internationally to use PAR methodology to reach other vulnerable children, particularly girl mothers.

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