Children As Multipliers of Peace: Exemplars of Psychosocial Support in Uganda

14 April 2021   ·   ​Dinnah Nabwire, Patrick Onyango-Mangen

In Uganda, locally run psychosocial programs for children affected by armed conflicts could mitigate the lasting effects of their experiences, contributing to sustainable peace and enabling children to become multipliers of peace. Germany should collaborate with the Ugandan government and local partners to support and scale-up child-focused peacebuilding initiatives.

“In addition to fearlessness and courage, I had learned from my uncle – a serving military personnel – that fighting and combat were often aimed at subduing enemy groups and protecting civilians. However, my experience changed when war broke out here in 2013. We [children, youth, and other civilians] had become part of the target! My hope in the belief my uncle nurtured in me had quickly vanished into running, hiding and witnessing deaths as we became an ‘enemy’ for whom it was no longer safe to stay home in South Sudan.”

This was how Agok (name changed by the authors), a 17-year-old refugee living in Uganda, started his narration when asked about his involvement in psychosocial support activities of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation Uganda (TPO Uganda) in 2017. He was 13 years old when he left South Sudan in 2013.

Almost Two Thirds of Refugees in Uganda Are Children – Many of Whom Are Traumatized and Discriminated Against

Agok is one of 900,000 child refugees and asylum seekers currently hosted in Uganda, which account for over 60% of the country’s total of 1.4 million refugees. Children and youth disproportionately bear the brunt of conflict and displacement. While delivering mental health and psychosocial support interventions, such as in the case of Agok, TPO Uganda social workers noted that most refugee children lived with the trauma of suddenly feeling unsafe among familiar spaces, including their homes and among the armed soldiers they had previously perceived as ‘keepers of peace.’ Moreover, enduring flight experiences that include ambushes, abductions, and physical and sexual violence leave lasting physical and emotional scars.

In the Kiryandongo refugee settlement in mid-west Uganda, refugee children are often 'identified' with tribalistic and derogatory names like ‘Musudani’ or ‘Dinka’ (meaning Sudanese or of the Dinka tribe) by other ethnic groups in the settlement, which makes them feel discriminated against and less integrated. In addition, most of the children expressed missing opportunities to grow up like ‘ordinary’ children and persistent feelings of blame, self-pity, and hopelessness. These experiences further affect their esteem, confidence, and ability to develop meaningful relationships in communities, schools, and at the family level.

Active Engagement of Children in Psychosocial Programs Can Multiply Their Impact on Peace

TPO Uganda adapted the child-friendly spaces model originally pioneered by UNICEF to deliver services that strengthen mental health and psychosocial support for refugee children and youth in the mid-west and West Nile districts of Adjumani, Kiryandong, and Yumbe. Here, children like Agok are supported to engage in guided play and participate in structured mental health programs such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or animation therapy. Children also benefit from a range of other activities like music, dance, drama, and basic reading classes.

Children coming to the child-friendly spaces are not treated as victims but as agents of change with a wealth of experience to enrich mental health and psychosocial activities and tools. An example is how children and youth contributed to shaping the content adaptation for CBT and animation therapy. Through co-facilitating sessions, social workers learned from children and youth the need to integrate fun activities like music, skits, and dance into the CBT sessions. Such changes were compiled into what serves as TPO Uganda’s Community Facilitators’ Manual to guide community workers delivering the model in low-resource and culturally diverse settings.

Furthermore, the child/youth peer-to-peer facilitation approach has served as an inspiration to new child participants. In showing the courage to share and face their vulnerability, child and youth facilitators and narrators reported being sought after by children who are harboring similar traumatizing experiences but are afraid to seek help due to fears of stigma and labeling. Refugee children who were part of the activities reported referring other children who approached them for support, thereby further preventing and responding to violence. Investing in this approach would require equipping the child-facilitators with additional skills and ensuring clarity of referral mechanisms. Moreover, standby social workers, volunteers, and the center management committees of the child-friendly spaces should be available to take on cases, thus reducing the burden on child and youth facilitators.

Peace and Recovery Programs Should Be Restructured to Support Children’s Ownership of Peacebuilding Initiatives

Through the child-friendly spaces, TPO Uganda has contributed to a narrative shift from traditional peacebuilding interventions that exclude children or often position them as helpless beneficiaries. For instance, after the civil war in Northern Uganda, international and national peacebuilding efforts have continually scored low on impact evaluations due to their focus on reconciling warring forces and infrastructural development but limited interest in human development interventions. In addition to not harnessing the potential of children and youth in steering ownership and lasting peace, this narrow focus systematically reinforces cycles of trauma that hinder healing and reconciliation by not prioritizing human development and specifically mental health and psychosocial support activities.

Even after a decade of implementing recovery programs by the government and international actors, a social functioning study from 2016 found that 65 percent of formerly abducted girls in Northern Uganda who had experienced sexual violence in rebel captivity still showed a direct correlation with stigma, poor community relations, and low general functioning. These girls were unable to actively participate in and benefit from Northern Uganda’s Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) and suffered from an increase in harmful coping mechanisms like alcoholism and continuing cycles of violence. Thus, directly engaging children and youth offers a solution to maximizing investments into recovery programs.

Germany Should Collaborate With Uganda to Scale-up Child-Focused Psychosocial Programs

While mental health and psychosocial support initiatives for children and youth in Uganda demonstrate an opportunity to contribute to sustainable peacebuilding and recovery programs, they are heavily underfunded and limited in scale and reach. This is problematic considering that in 2015, the United Nations Development Programme found that 50 percent of the population in the PRDP region were affected by trauma and critical events, including sexual violence related to war. There is not enough research to show what interventions can help, which further limits evidence-based scale-up in fragile parts of the country and other conflict-stricken areas globally. 

Donor countries like Germany can contribute to advancing community models such as child-friendly spaces through collaborating with the government of Uganda and directly with national organizations like TPO Uganda. This recommendation is aligned to the global localization agenda for humanitarian action, ensuring that community structures and resources are centered on delivering lasting programming. 

Allocating specific grants to innovative startups that target refugee and host-community youth will be critical in scaling up the skills learned through the child-friendly spaces. Specific grants could focus on action research to integrate mentorship and growth of youth facilitators. This is critical in sectors like information technology where youth resource centers can help address sexual and reproductive health needs, HIV and AIDS and economic empowerment. In our work, we observed that integrating reproductive health, microfinance and information technology into peacebuilding and government programs reached significantly more youth than initiatives plainly calling for ‘peaceful coexistence’ and ‘youth leadership’.

As humanitarian work continues to face chronic underfunding globally, solidarity with local organizations and national governments supporting refugees and asylum seekers is critical. In Uganda, national organizations like TPO Uganda or REPSSI are increasingly shouldering the humanitarian response as international actors scaled down their engagement at the country-level. Development partners like Germany can support sustaining this frontline work through funding appropriations towards the government of Uganda, national organizations, research, and youth-led initiatives.

This is the second piece in a series of articles on the PeaceLab blog which give insights into the roles of children and youth in conflict and post-conflict situations around the world.

Sub-Sahara Afrika Children Peacebuilding

​Dinnah Nabwire

Dinnah Nabwire is an independent policy researcher focused on gender, peace, and security in Uganda and the Great Lakes Region, who formerly worked for TPO Uganda. Dinnah is also a 2019 Youth Policy fellow with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, where her policy research sought to advance psychosocial support policies for sexual violence in Uganda's conflict-affected areas. @NabwireDinnah

Patrick Onyango-Mangen

Patrick Onyango-Mangen is CEO of REPSSI and has worked extensively in the field of psychosocial support and mental health in Sub-Saharan Africa. He has designed and implemented psychosocial support services for communities affected by conflicts, disasters, humanitarian emergencies, and HIV/AIDS. Mr. Onyango worked for TPO Uganda for 25 years.