New York, NY
Tens of thousands of people — the majority of them children and adolescents — flee their homes nightly as the 18-year war in northern Uganda has worsened. Fearing increased attacks and abduction by the rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), these civilians escape to the relative safety of town centers each night. Many of the girls and women among them are sexually abused and harassed along the way, as well as in the areas where they sleep, which the Ugandan government does not protect.
"Without adequate security, adolescent girls and women are forced to choose between their fear of LRA attack at home and their fear of rape during their nightly flight into town," said Matthew Emry, project manager, children and adolescents project, Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, who traveled to northern Uganda in December 2003. "Many of these 'night commuters,' as they are known, walk as far as six miles every night and again each morning. Night commuting is increasing and is touching most major towns in war-affected areas."
Night commuter girls and women reported that male youth and Ugandan government military forces are sexually harassing and abusing them. "Five teenage boys approached me in the darkness as I walked into town," one 15-year-old girl in Kitgum said. "They told me they wanted me; I resisted, but they held me for hours by the road, until one raped me." In some cases, girls reported that schools in Kitgum are being used as rape sites in the evening. There is no central reporting system, few services for survivors, and cases are rarely followed up. Girls also fear public shame should they choose to come forward. Some parents seek cash payments from perpetrators, thereby making the assault public knowledge.
Night commuting started about a year and a half ago after the Ugandan government launched the Operation Iron Fist military offensive against the LRA, which led to a significant increase in violence in the region. In response to Operation Iron Fist, which is supported by the United States, the LRA increased its attacks on civilians and its abduction of young people. Night commuters are only a small portion of the 1.2 million people who have been internally displaced by the conflict and live in desperate conditions in northern Uganda. "There is a humanitarian disaster in the region," said Emry.
In addition to the threat of sexual violence, night commuters face harsh conditions in sleeping spaces. There are not enough shelters to accommodate them, and many are forced to sleep outdoors, exposed to rain, wind, mosquitoes and unsanitary conditions. Consequently, many contract respiratory tract infections, malaria, diarrhea and scabies. Young night commuters also face an increased risk of HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancy as a result of sexual violence or unprotected sex. Some aid agencies have struggled to assist night commuters with little or no support from government or United Nations agencies.
"The Ugandan government must do more to protect its citizens and put an end to the need for night commuting," Emry said. "But much more must be done right now to protect all internally displaced persons and night commuters, especially girls and women. The United Nations should urgently step up work with the Ugandan government, international donors, nongovernmental organizations and local youth groups to protect civilians, monitor and prevent gender-based violence and provide services to survivors."