The Stigma of Being Disabled Remains High in Post-Conflict Northern Uganda

This is part 1 of 2 in a short blog series on this issue. For confidentiality reasons, we have changed the names in this story.

For many parents living in post-conflict northern Uganda, they are not only battling bereavement and trauma from their childhoods but are also overwhelmed with caring for a disabled child with little support. We spoke with one young mother, Nancy, who was just 14 when she was married to her husband, himself under 18, both of whom lost nearly their entire families during the war. When Nancy was 17, she gave birth to her daughter, who suffers from a severe mental disability which has left her unable to care for herself. Sixteen years later, Nancy describes how she has received little support and education on her daughter’s disability and feels hopeless attempting to navigate the complex surroundings of stigma and misunderstanding of mental disability within her community.

In order to support their family, Nancy and Okello must spend long hours, far from their home to cultivate food for their family. With little community support with their daughter’s care, Nancy and Okello are forced to leave her tied up at home to protect her from harm. However, several times upon returning from the field, Nancy has found that her daughter has been sexually assaulted, sometimes even by close family relatives. Unfortunately, this is not unusual as one in three persons with disabilities in Uganda report experiencing some form of SGBV[1].

On each occasion Nancy has attempted to escalate these incidences to the clan leader. However, due to misinformed perceptions of disability, and fear of further community stigma and exclusion, Nancy has found no physical protection or psychological support for her daughter. This a worryingly common outcome in the remote villages of northern Uganda, where the state system for the punishment and prevention of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is largely inaccessible and little state-structured psychosocial support exists[2]. Stigma surrounding disability is also an everyday issue in northern Uganda[1][3], as it is in many post-conflict settings, whereby political marginalization and protracted violence have separated communities and disrupted social and economic progress[4].

One quarter of our group members in Madi Opei are women survivors of wartime mutilation or were born with disabilities that have resulted in their exclusion from society, due to stigma and dependency. Despite this, the harrowing physical injuries and psychological memories of the atrocities committed throughout the LRA war are often accompanied by societal exclusion and stigma. Many of these marginalized communities have received no support surrounding disability and this significantly impacts the treatment and human rights of disabled community members. It is therefore imperative to address the stigma surrounding disability so that communities can better understand causes, as well as the effects on cognition and behaviour and, ultimately, begin to treat people like Nancy and her daughter with the care and respect they deserve.

[1] UNHCR (2016). SGBV Prevention and Response: Training Package. UNHCR, October 2016. [online] Available at:

[2] Human Rights Watch (2010). “As If We Weren’t Human”: Discrimination and Violence Against Women With Disabilities in Northern Uganda. Human Rights Watch, New York.

[3] Mazurana et al. (2016). Disability and recovery from war in northern Uganda. Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal, 1(3): pp.353-369.

[4] Rohwerder, B. (2017). Women and girls with disabilities in conflict and crises. Institute of Development Studies, K4D Helpdesk Report for DFID.