By Susan Kendi
Girls are affected differently from boys in armed conflict since they experience both rape and forced marriages which boys are not exposed to, an expert has told the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Michael Gibbs Wessells, a psychologist and professor at Columbia University, told judges in the Dominic Ongwen trial on May 15, 2018 that there are various patterns of effects since when a girl is raped she blames herself and so there are high levels of depression among them since guilt is an amplifier. He added that the other reasons boys are favoured combatants over girls is because of things like reproductive health and fistula.
Girls, he added, face a greater burden of stigma when they are victims of sexual violence.
Prof Wessells has extensive experience in supporting programmes for children affected by war and developing guidelines on health protection of children and youth.
Here are excerpts of the examination of the witness by the Principal Counsel of the Office of the Public Counsel for Victims at the ICC, Paolina Massidda:
Massidda: Good Morning, Professor Wessells. Could you tell us your full names?
Wessells: Michael Gibbs Wessells.
Massidda: What is your nationality?
Massidda: What is your occupation?
Wessells: Psychologist and professor of professor at Columbia University in the Program on Forced Migration and Health, Columbia University.
Massidda: (Looking at the professor’s report) You mentioned that you worked in Uganda. What work did you do in Uganda and what year?
Wessells: During the war, I worked for the national team children’s fund. I worked in Uganda between 1998 and 2007 and subsequently I did work with those recruited. Most of my work was in Gulu, Soroti and Lira.
Massidda: In your expert opinion, what are the impacts of being exposed to war as a child?
Wessells: The western psychologist approach has done research that some significant number of children develop PTSD. It would be a mistake to acquit the effects of war on mental disorder. In Acholi society people understand themselves as a community. It is the social environment that causes everyday stress. There is no such thing as effects of war on children — girls and boys are affected differently. Some of the effects of war are culturally constructed. If I go to Acholiland and talk to the Acholi community and the children, they would want to speak about culture because it is the centre of their life. Some things like cen. There has been a problem with psychology focusing on the deficient(s). In Uganda, I found levels of resilience which comes from agents of the people.
Massidda: I am looking at your report on Page 8, and you make a notion in relation to family separation. (Reading the part of the report) “Family separation is among the greatest risks of children globally.” I would like to know how family separation affects children.
Wessells: Family is the first line of support and defence for children so in a situation saturated with fear, it is not that the family is the complete protection but it is the first. These concerns don’t cross the clinical threshold but if you speak to young people these are things they cite as worrying… The name post traumatic stress disorder is unfortunate. People in war ask me every day, what do you mean post (traumatic)? This happens every day.
Massidda: You touched upon the issue of age and gender. In your experience, is there any difference in how children of various ages are affected differently?
Wessells: Yes. There is a negative effect on the brain development. Most of the evidence comes from northern societies. For young children, there is a crucial thing that happens called attachment process. If there is an insecure or failed attachment, it results in a long term development process. These things have impact. Teenagers are in the process of identifying their identity, carving what they are in the world. A child who is abducted and spends crucial developmental years in the group may see themselves as soldiers and so integrating back to the community and seeing themselves as civilians is hard. The things that happen in each developmental stage might have long time implication. Girls are affected differently since in armed conflict girls are affected by rape, forced marriage — which boys are not exposed to. You see various patterns of effects. If a girl is horribly raped, she blames herself. So there are high levels of depression in girls since guilt is an amplifier. Levels of stress in girls even after they have left the armed group are high since they experience stigma. Even if we say that girls are fighters, boys are favoured combatants. There are other reproduction things like reproductive health and fistula.
Massidda: A clarification for boys. In your expert opinion, you know that great stigma is associated with boys who are raped, right?
Thomas Obhof: Objection ,your Honour
Judge Bertram Schmitt: Let me rephrase. Is there a concept of stigma also related to male victims of sexual violence and is there a difference with the girls?
Wessells: Yes. Girls face a greater burden of stigma.
Massidda: Can moral development be impaired for being a former child soldier?
Wessells: We have a lot to learn about this area. Scientific data is far from complete. The boys and girls in Northern Uganda have a dual role, as victims and perpetrators. Victims since they were abducted, forced to shoot members of their community and family and they become perpetrators. Majority of child soldiers remain knowing what is right or wrong. Psychologically when one has engaged in violence once, it becomes easier the second time. The children in the LRA that I spoke with were not robots. They said they did that because they wanted to stay alive. They protect their morals everyday by focusing on life in the LRA, that if you don’t obey rules you die. They are not worried in the moment but retain their morals. To escape requires planning and motivation from understanding that things are bad. So I think even though they did what they had to do to survive, the majority did not become robots or lose their moral developments. There are moral implications on some children. Some children don’t cope, they learn to enjoy and gain satisfaction from inflicting pain. It is a package of a human being. Some children get morally destroyed.
Massidda: I am now interested in what you call intergenerational transmission of trauma in your report. (Reading his report) The intergenerational transmission of trauma will likely affect the families of abducted children in Northern Uganda for generations to come. Which data and facts do you base these assumptions and what do you mean with intergenerational transmission of trauma.
Wessells: This is another area where the evidence is incomplete. I don’t know if it has been documented properly in Uganda but it has been seen in Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. One mechanism is that mothers who experience trauma transmit the trauma to their offspring through hormones.
Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. His charges include sexual and gender based crimes that were allegedly committed between 2002 and 2005 during the attacks on Lukodi, Pajule, Odek and Abok camps for the internally displaced persons, murder and the abduction of children to act as fighters, porters and sex slaves to serve the LRA soldiers.