In Gulu Town, in northern Uganda, a group of women is gathered on a terrace, baking cakes and chatting about everything under the sun — the quality of butter, weddings and the trauma of conflict. Laughter and tears flow freely.
These are precious hours, and they know how lucky they are to have each other and some means to support themselves. The women belong to Golden Women Vision, a voluntary community-based organization formed in 2011 to bake and sell cakes. The larger goal is to "improve the social-economic status of the people who were affected by the Northern Uganda war insurgency," an online statement says.
Today, Golden Women Vision has 61 members: widows, single mothers (some whose children were abducted and never returned), domestic abuse survivors and former abductees, including some who have lost limbs or still live with bullet wounds.
One of them is Scovia Apiyo. She was only about 9 years old when she was first abducted by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) along with her twin sister. She spent eight months in captivity before escaping, only to be captured again, this time for a year. She was then assigned to a rebel soldier who sexually abused her. “He was 35 years old. I was just about 12,” she recalled. “But you have no option.”
Apiyo’s childhood was dominated by two emotions — fear and hunger.
Born in 1990, when the insurgency was intensifying in northern Uganda, Apiyo was raised in a camp for displaced people — set up by the government to, in theory, protect civilians — and never knew what home meant. There was a constant food shortage. Her family slept in the bush to hide from attacks and abductions; it was too dangerous to go to school.
After her rescue around 2003, Apiyo attended school for the first time thanks to the help of local church leaders. Later, she settled down with a partner. But it wasn't long before her husband abandoned her for being a former abductee (there are many instances of men rejecting women who had been abducted and raped or sexually abused, due to the stigma, as this report lays out).
“It has been very difficult,” Apiyo said. “Until now, I feel like eating is not important because I am not used to eating. When there is food, I eat. When it is not there, I don’t. It’s normal.”
Today, though, the 27-year-old single mother of two boys is happy baking cakes here in Gulu, which is located in the Acholi subregion in northern Uganda, the epicenter of the conflict.
The group works extremely hard, splitting their time between multiple jobs. Many of the women do small-scale agricultural farming (on land that they rent) and sell their fresh produce. They also bring beaded bags, secondhand clothes, jewelry, home-brewed alcohol — and their cakes — to the market. They save the evening hours for baking.
The women bake three times a week and take orders for birthdays, weddings and other functions. In the last few years, seeing a demand for wedding décor, they invested in drapes, flowers, ribbons and a metal arch, to expand their services.
“We bake cakes. We go to parties with the decorations. There we see how people interact. It also makes us feel at home,” Apiyo said, smiling. “We feel like, 'Oh, we are still a part of the world,' and we are happy!”
In northern Uganda, the conflict between the government and the LRA, which lasted for about 20 years until a ceasefire agreement in 2006, was rife with human rights violations. It led to the internal displacement of about 1.8 million people and the abduction of an estimated 66,000 children and youth who were used as soldiers, sex slaves or porters. An estimated 10,000 people are still missing.
The postconflict period has not meant the beginning of a better life for most women. It left behind a large number of vulnerable former abductees, widows and single mothers without any specific redress in one of the poorest regions in the country. The conflict and its aftermath also worsened existing gender inequalities in the traditionally patriarchal society of northern Uganda.
Women are often subject to alcohol abuse by their partners and vulnerable to domestic violence and land grabbing (it's difficult to enforce women's rights to land ownership). Their ability to go to school and gain marketable skills has been greatly exacerbated by the conflict. And the unemployment rate among women is high. Many women struggle to make ends meet.
Sylvia Acan, 39, lost her sister and parents to the conflict and suddenly found herself pregnant after being raped at the age of 17. She had no choice but to marry her attacker. She did odd jobs to support her family. She has six children.
When Acan heard that a nongovernmental organization, Caritas, was training women in catering to help them recover and reintegrate after the conflict, she immediately enrolled. In 2008, Acan mastered baking, gained business skills and learned the importance of savings.
Later, she realized that she could use the savings to buy ingredients and put her skills to use.
She co-founded Golden Women Vision, asking women to pay a registration fee of about $3 to join and then training them to bake “affordable and delicious” cakes. The organization makes anywhere between 14 cents to $14 for each cake and more for decorations.
“When we receive payments, we encourage members to borrow some money for their needs. We use a portion to buy ingredients, and the rest, we save it in the bank,” Acan said. “We are trying our best to help a few women do something so they can sustain themselves. It empowers them, as well.”
The organization uses a room in her apartment and an adjoining rooftop to bake. “We get many orders. People buy and like our cakes,” Acan said, adding vanilla essence to the cake batter that she mixed with a large wooden spoon. Later, she carefully scooped the batter into baking trays and placed them in a firewood oven.
In a 2014 study, 90 out of 97 women survivors of conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence interviewed by the Justice and Reconciliation Project said they still faced the same threat and sexual violence they did in the past. When survivors were asked what kind of assistance they needed, their main concern was earning a living — whether through vocational or skills training or startup capital.
“We have seen that if you provide [an] economic boost to women, they may not even need medication or counseling to recover,” said Jude Okeria, project coordinator with the NGO, Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO). TPO provides group cognitive behavioral therapy, physical rehabilitation and economic support to survivors of the conflict in three subcounties of northern Uganda. According to Okeria, how well a group copes, functions socially and recovers from trauma is strongly linked to their economic empowerment.
“I think the focus should not only stop at psychosocial rehabilitation but also extend to equipping survivors so they return economically independent,” added George Omona, reflecting on the gaps in providing support to survivors in the region. Omona was the first program coordinator for Gulu Save the Children Organisation (GUSCO), which opened a rehabilitation center in 1994 to receive girls returning from abduction.
One of them was Magret Aneno, who was abducted as an 11-year-old. She gave birth to two children and lost an arm during a fight between LRA and government soldiers while in captivity. Aneno was hospitalized for five months and received counseling during the few weeks she spent at GUSCO. But there hasn't been much follow-up, and she is still in pain and grappling with abuse and poverty.
It is not easy for her to bake or sell produce with the use of only one arm but there is no other option. “I still feel traumatized,” Aneno said, breaking into tears.
Women with conflict-related disabilities are subject to stigma in society but Aneno says she feels valued and accepted by her fellow bakers.
For most of the group's members, the organization has become much more than a source of income. “When any of them have problems, we handle it together as a team. We talk to them; we encourage them that this is not the end of life,” Acan said.
About three-fourths of the women are former abductees, and many are widows and single mothers. While each one of them has their own struggle, they have all faced gender-based violence at some point, especially domestic abuse.
“Men, when they don’t have any work, they become very aggressive and arrogant,” 43-year-old Zelinda Akello said.
“Most of the men have left all the responsibilities on the women. We are the ones doing everything and struggling,” Acan added.
For them, leaving an abusive husband is not an option, and for the sake of their children, they prefer to settle things out of court. The women try to talk to the husband and encourage a dialogue between the partners. If the man still comes home drunk and angry, the women believe it's best to talk to him calmly in the hope that he does not get abusive. “We always encourage mediation so that he continues to stay and take care of the children,” Acan said.
The money that baking brings them is not enough but it keeps them going. They are saving up to rent their own baking studio and retail space someday, which will allow them to take more orders, bake freely and not have to share profits with supermarket owners. The group also wants to help more survivors form their own local baking groups. “We want more women to bake and earn money so they can feed their children,” Acan said.
Despite the challenges, they are hopeful about the future. “There is no one helping us so we are helping ourselves,” Acan said. “The world should see what women are capable of doing."
Sarita Santoshini reported from Uganda with the support of a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP).