Uganda's government must do what it can to protect children and women from violence, while the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) must immediately and unconditionally stop abducting, killing and exploiting Uganda's children, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said on Thursday.
"Children are being killed and raped in Uganda," UNICEF's resident representative Martin Mugwanja said during the national launch of the agency's State of the World's Children 2005 report, entitled "Childhood Under Threat", in the northern town of Gulu. "Childhood is being destroyed.
"First and foremost, I appeal to the LRA to immediately and unconditionally stop the abduction, killing and exploitation of children," he added. "These acts are not only unconscionable, but are also flagrant violations of the children’s right to life."
The LRA has targeted children throughout the 18-year war, forcibly recruiting boys to fight amongst its ranks and forcing girls to become sex slaves for its commanders. Relief agencies estimate that up to 20,000 children have been abducted across northern Uganda.
"Many of us were forcefully given out as wives to rebel commanders," Florence Adokorach, a 21-year-old mother who bore four children during her 12 years as a rebel captive, said during the launch. "We risked contracting sexually transmitted disease because we did not know these people, but we had nothing to do as we feared for our lives. This produced a high number of child mothers, but again, we had to fight to get what to eat or what to wear."
UNICEF said that in the district of Gulu alone, an estimated 840 abducted girls returned home this year. About thirty 30 percent had already become mothers.
"But even at home, we are faced with numerous problems," Adokorach added. "We have children without their fathers and even ourselves - we have no parents."
Lili Amono, 25, who also spent 12 years in captivity, did not see a future for herself and her child.
"I see problems ahead because we have no adult to take care of us," she said after narrating her life in captivity and memories of her friends who died in the bush. "We ask that you give us more hope that the future will be bright."
Others who testified include the so-called night commuters, some of the tens of thousands of children who leave their homes every night fearing possible abduction or attacks by the LRA rebels.
"Girls have faced numerous sexual harassment," one female teenager said. "We are tied of the war. We appeal to the government and the rebels to end this war.
"Childhood implies a distinct period of life in which children can grow in health and safety," Mugwanja noted after the testimonies. "Childhood refers not only to an irreplaceable time of individual human growth, but to the quality of those years. And yet childhood in Uganda today is under threat. HIV/AIDS is posing a lethal assault on children and childhood [in general]."
The war in northern Uganda has targeted children and has displaced hundreds of thousands of them.
"UNICEF and its partners draw attention to the right of all Ugandan children to live in an environment in which access to basic health services, education, safe water, shelter and other essential services is unhindered," the UNICEF official urged. "Parties on both sides of the conflict must respect and fulfil this right."
The Ugandan minister in charge of children, Felix Okot Ogong, pledged his government's commitment to end the war and promised that an end might even be on the horizon, referring to peace efforts between the government and the rebels.
"We are very committed to ending this war," Ogong said. "It should have ended yesterday, but we hope that this end is near. Poverty levels have reduced from about 60 percent to about 30 percent in ten years, though unfortunately, the poverty levels in northern Uganda have, instead, gone up to around 70 percent."
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