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TACKLING DEFORESTATION TO STOP FAMILY BREAK-UPS IN WEST NILE

Young girls from harvesting firewood

BY FEDERICK DRAMADRI             

ARUA: THURSDAY, JUNE 02, 2022

In the West Nile sub-region, the districts of Terego, Madi Okollo, Obongi, Yumbe, Koboko and Adjumani are hosting refugees.

Together with those that are densely populated, these districts are experiencing rapid depletion of forest cover resulting in increased gender-based violence and divorce.

This has contributed to the rising cases of single parenthood, according to a female councilor representing Persons with Disabilities in the Madi-Okollo district.

The councilor is also a single mother and a victim of rape in the jungle while looking for firewood.

Speaking of her broken marriage, she explains that she had spent long hours looking for firewood, arriving home late and as a result, their food for supper was delayed up to around 11:00 pm at the night which annoyed her then husband.

“Sometimes we go to look for firewood five to ten miles away. This takes a lot of time but when I explained this to my husband, he did not understand.  He ordered me to leave his home or else he would kill me,” the councilor recalls of the incident.

Struggling to hold back her tears, she revealed that sometimes they are raped inside the bushes while searching for firewood by nomadic pastoralists known as Balaalo and hunters of bush meat.

“You just die with the pain silently to avoid being divorced. I was raped twice in the bush while looking for firewood. But the worst experience was when I saw a young girl being raped by her stepfather and an old woman being raped by a young boy just in the month of May 2022. She hardly moved after the sexual assault,” she narrated.

A woman taking firewood to be sold in the market

The councilor is not the only woman who turned into a single mother as a result of the violence over scarce forest products.

Martha Aber, a South Sudanese in Imvepi Refugee settlement in Terego District was abandoned by her husband following continuous attacks by the host community members who did not want the refugees to harvest firewood from the bushes.

“Whenever we went to get firewood from the local forests, the neighbouring communities would beat all of us and when we reported to the local authorities, they did nothing,” lamented Aber.

She said as the refugee-host community conflict over wood products continued her husband left for Juba, South Sudan, fearing that he could get killed by the local community.

Aggrey Nundwa, the Programs Coordinator at World Vision, counted over 56 girls and women who conceived as a result of rape in the jungle while looking for firewood.

The affected women are both refugees and host community members aged 14 to 36 years forcefully abused by sex predators.

“Most of these women and girls had remained helpless after being abandoned by the parents or the husbands rejected them due to various reasons among which the environmental issues top the list,” Nundwa said.

Africa wide challenge

The challenge of high dependence on wood fuel for domestic energy needs is an Africa wide problem.

The Africa Green Stimulus Program(AGSP) estimates that 60% of the continent’s population does not use electricity as an alternative source of energy and that this has adverse impact on the biodiversity.

Uganda has been ranked third on the globe for hosting refugees with about 1.5 million Refugees, majority of who are from the South Sudan. The others are from Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia.

Many of these refugees are settled in West Nile, causing havoc to the environment as the demand for energy keeps increasing every day.

According to records obtained from National Forestry Authority, West Nile has seen its vegetation cover depleted from 34% in 1990 to 9% in 2015.

Increased demand for land for farming, illegal logging and high demand for fire wood and commercial charcoal are blamed for the dire situation.

As a result, AGSP encourages countries to invest in greening, increasing electricity production and promoting other alternative sources of clean energy.

In West Nile, several implementing partners in the refugee hosting districts including Danish Refugee Council, German Development Agency, GIZ, and World Vision have tried to use various mechanisms for ending conflicts among families arising from the impact of human environmental interactions.

They do this by empowering communities to use alternative sources of energy, capacity building on restoration efforts of the depleted forest areas and tree planting among others.

With the tree planting intervention from partners, the vegetation cover of the sub-region improved slightly to 12.5% in 2020, Robert Owiny, former NFA range manager for West Nile says.

Hiccups in resolving deforestation

The male youth Councilor in Madi Okollo District, Fred Okello Ayikobua says the district is doing badly in terms of tree cutting without replacement and that this culminates in to increased cases of gender based violence.

Ayikobua stresses that majority of the people in the district do not embrace alternative sources of energy like the use of gas, solar energy, briquettes and energy saving charcoal stoves.

He said this is because such alternative energy sources are expensive and the locals lack knowledge on how to use them while other alternative energy sources are not readily available to the communities. 

GBV in refugee hosting districts

The Genders Based Violence dashboard Report Published by Relief Web as of September 23, 2021, indicates that between the months of January and June 2021 a total of 2,542 new GBV incidences from 13 refugee hosting districts in Uganda Were registered, 94% of the survivors were female while 4% were male.

This rape was the highest at 29% followed by physical assault at 26%.

Records obtained from Arua central Police station Regional offices of the Child and Family Protection Unit indicate that West Nile police registered 841 domestic violence cases and of these 520 were gender-based meanwhile 305 were from environmentally-related concerns.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                West Nile regional Child and Family Protection Unit in-charge, Superintend of Police, Jimmy Anguyo say the majority of the men in the refugee hosting districts have negatively seen the interventions of the implementing partners aimed at empowering women.

“Majority of these cases are over the scarcity of resources. Some are due to the attitude of implementing partners singling women in their programs and ignoring men. Others are due to the practice of men marrying too many wives which creates a burden in the families,” Anguyo explained.

As part of the problem-solving mechanism, Solomon Osakan, the Regional Refugee Desk Officer in the Office of Prime Minister in Arua says they are engaging different stakeholders in various activities tackling behavioural change, livelihoods, restoration of forests and strengthening access to justice among the refugees and host communities.

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