Landmark project brings to light crimes against humanity in African war zones

SSHRC-funded project documents conjugal slavery in conflict regions of Africa. With high-profile partners, this pioneering research team is now sharing its work with a global audience thanks to the guidance of York’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit.

For seven years, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies Professor Annie Bunting has been working on a ground-breaking project, “Conjugal Slavery in War (CSiW): Partnerships for the study of enslavement, marriage and masculinities.” This venture seeks to document cases of forced marriage in conflict situations in Africa, to place this data in historical context and to impact the international prosecution of crimes against humanity as well as local reparations programs for survivors of violence.

Bunting has awarded a progression of major funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to support this work; she won a Partnership Development Grant (2011-2015), then a Partnership Grant (2015-2020).

Women’s Advocacy Network members, Gulu, Uganda 2012. Photo credit: Annie Bunting

Pressing themes have now emerged from this work, as well as gaps in knowledge, such as men’s experiences of being ordered to be violent and children’s experiences of being stigmatized for being born as the result of sexual violence.

“This project will strengthen an individual’s and an organization's capacity to prevent violence and advance understanding of the use of conjugal slavery as a tool of war through evidence-based research,” Bunting explains.

Annie Bunting (left). The “Conjugal Slavery in War (CSiW)” project documents cases of forced marriage in conflict situations in Africa

Annie Bunting (left). The “Conjugal Slavery in War (CSiW)” project documents cases of forced marriage in conflict situations in Africa.

York’s Knowledge Mobilization (KMb) Unit is working with the project organizers to help them spread the word about this vital project.

Interdisciplinary team includes 10 partners, 25 collaborators across 10 countries

Bunting’s project has grown exponentially and attracted, to date, 10 partners and 25 collaborators and graduate students across ten countries. High-profile partners include Solidarité Féminine pour la paix et le développement Intégral (SOFEPADI), PLAN International, the Liu Institute for Global Issues, and the Harriet Tubman Institute.

This interdisciplinary team of researchers and partners explores the social and legal meaning of conjugal slavery or servile marriage during war, and the implications of this gender violence in post-conflict situations. Through archival, qualitative and legal research, this project examines the experiences of women and men who were subject to or participated in enslavement in the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Uganda.

Gulu, Uganda 2012. Photo credit: Annie Bunting

Gulu, Uganda 2012. Photo credit: Annie Bunting

More specifically, since monitoring the prosecution of gender violence at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the partners have been working in Sierra Leone, Uganda and DRC to track the developments of international criminal law, national laws and local reparations programs. Bunting and her colleagues submitted a brief on forced marriage as a crime against humanity to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in 2016.

Project offers 250 powerful interviews with survivors

In addition to legal monitoring, the researchers have gathered over 250 interviews with survivors of abduction and forced marriage. In February 2018, CSiW coproduced “Life of the Law,” a four-part podcast in a series on Uganda by Gladys Oroma. This follows the lives of Beatrice Ocwee and Samuel Akena, two of the thousands of children who were abducted in northern Uganda and held captive by LRA rebels from the 1980s to 2008. This podcast series was downloaded almost 80,000 times across 60 countries throughout the two months of the series in 2018.

Equally compelling material includes powerful advocacy documentaries, such as:

  • “They Slept with Me,” by the Refugee Law Project, which features an interview with a father of seven who was attacked and raped by government soldiers in northern Uganda;
  • “Parenting the Missing,” also by the Refugee Law Project, which contains an interview with a mother whose only daughter was captured by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA, the rebel group in Uganda) and has never returned; and
  • “I am not who they think I am,” by the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), which features an interview with a young Ugandan woman, born as the result of sexual violence, who sees herself as a burden to society. This video, provided below with permission from ICTJ, also contains interviews with mothers, abducted and raped, who were rejected by their community when they beat the odds and returned from captivity.

CSiW has been gaining attention. CBC’s “The Current” recently aired an interview with one of the project’s collaborators, Grace Acan from Uganda.

CSiW participants, Stella Lanam and Grace Acan. Gulu, Uganda 2012. Photo credit: Annie Bunting

CSiW participants, Stella Lanam and Grace Acan. Gulu, Uganda 2012. Photo credit: Annie Bunting

Themes brought to the fore, important knowledge gaps identified

Several key themes have emerged from this research, which need further attention and study. The team aims to fill the following gaps in knowledge:

  • Research on men’s experiences of forced marriage – this includes being ordered to be violent;
  • The post-conflict impact of stigma on children born as the result of sexual violence;
  • Research on the relationship between wartime violence and existing and historical gender norms; and
  • The ongoing debates about the effectiveness of the tribunals and commissions, including government and international reparations programs.

Knowledge Mobilization Unit helps project team connect with global audience

For the past three years, Bunting and Project Coordinator Véronique Bourget, have worked closely with York’s KMb Unit. Michael Johnny, manager of the KMb Unit, explains: “Our team presented to the project’s partners on KMb principles and recommended activities for the project team to consider. We sought to engage and help connect the research and research findings with global audiences.”

One key planning tool was the creation of a five-year plan for KMb.

Five-year plan for this project’s knowledge mobilization

Five-year plan for this project’s knowledge mobilization

Consultations with the KMb Unit have also led to the creation of a four-part podcast series to engage audiences around important issues. Additionally, Bunting and her project team are developing plans to exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg this fall.

To learn more about Bunting, visit her faculty profile. For more information on CSiW, visit the website. To watch the videos, see resources. To listen to the Uganda podcast, visit the website.  To read the brief on forced marriage as a crime against humanity, visit the website. To see “Life of the Law,” visit the website. To watch “The Current” interview with Acan, visit the website.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York University, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca