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13 March 2017

Women’s rights heroine from Uganda: Grace Arach

At the end of the civil war, Grace Arach set up an independent women’s rights organisation in Uganda. For ten years her organisation has been patching up part of the post-war society by strengthening women and families. How did the impressive young woman manage to retain her energy and smile as she faced many difficulties and obstacles?

Grace Arach is the name of the young Ugandan woman who has been a local partner of medica mondiale for the past ten years. Her "Foundation for Women Affected by Conflicts" (FOWAC) has improved the life of hundreds of women in northern Uganda.

Fetching child soldiers back to their families

The story of Grace and FOWAC began at a time when civil war was still raging in Uganda. During the 20 years of conflict, an estimated 66,000 children and youth were kidnapped. Civilians were killed, mutilated, raped and tortured, and 90 per cent of the population were displaced within their own country. As a young social worker, Grace was working in a Caritas shelter for former child soldiers who had been able to escape from their captivity with the Lord’s Resistance Army. Aged between 9 and 17, almost all of these children had murdered people and they had all grown up in a reality far worse than any nightmare.

Grace travels to Germany

In 2003, two German documentary film-makers noticed Grace in the Caritas shelter and started filming her work, resulting in the award-winning film “Lost Children” two years later. This led to Grace accompanying the film-makers back to Germany to raise awareness of the fate of the child soldiers. During her trip she met Kirsten Wienberg from medica mondiale. “She was a remarkable woman with very impressive energy,” recalls Kirsten today. She promised to help Grace, leading to the implementation of the first joint project between the young social worker and medica mondiale.

Setting up FOWAC: Long-term support for women and girls

As the first project with medica mondiale came to an end, Grace asked, “What do I need to set up my own organisation?” One week later she already had a plan: she would found an organisation to help women who had survived sexualised wartime violence, kidnapping and enslavement as they went through the difficult process of returning into their community. She just needed a name. Right from the start, she knew it would include “foundation” because of the twin meaning (a charitable organisation and a basis). Then she expanded on that to call it “Foundation for Women Affected by Conflict”. Grace submitted a new project application to medica mondiale and was awarded a grant of 5,000 euros. Part of this funding was used to buy oxen for the women’s agricultural work. Grace says: “Those oxen are still alive.” And laughs her laugh again – a life-affirming laugh in spite of everything.

FOWAC develops

“Just a short time later we received a visit from a medica mondiale staff member who wanted to talk with us about new projects.” This led to the FOWAC women’s groups, where women who had experienced violence join together and save small sums of money. The group then lends its members micro-credits, helping them to open their own little shops or invest in chickens. Their economic situation improves tangibly and the women gain a new independence. In addition, FOWAC staff offer the members group psychosocial counselling sessions. Listening to each other, being understood, sharing and solidarity all help the women out of difficult situations – either those from the past or ones they are currently facing.

Difficulties and obstacles

Establishing FOWAC was not easy, in spite of the assistance from friends and medica mondiale. At one point it looked as if the organisation would not succeed: after a one-year scholarship in Australia, Grace returned to Kitgum to find her blossoming young organisation on the verge of collapse. Her stand-in had caused a lot of problems, abused her trust and taken important documents and certificates. Even now when she speaks of that period, Grace is wracked by pain and despair. “We didn’t know how to cope with all of that.” Nonetheless, Grace and her colleagues found the strength to re-build the organisation. “Now, if difficulties come up we say, ‘Problems are opportunities, and we are already looking for a solution’.” At this point they made a small but important change in the organisation’s name: from “Women Affected by Conflict” to “Women Affected by Conflicts”.

“It is not only about one conflict. There are always several conflicts: political, military, societal, family. And even our conflict with ourselves.”

This is how Grace explains the name change. Difficulties, obstacles, her own experiences during the civil war: nothing has clouded Grace’s optimism. Quite the opposite: it is her mild, confident yet still vulnerable humanity which characterises her engaging personality. And it is this same humanity which she has tenaciously lived out for many years in her war-torn country. In spite of the stressful work and harrowing stories.

“We can achieve a lot here because we know our way around and we know the women.”

“Today, FOWAC is living proof that it is primarily time and energy which we need to give fresh prospects in life to hundreds of women who have had to endure sexualised violence,” enthuses Grace. “We might only be a small organisation, but we can achieve a lot here because we know our way around and we know the women.”

This year FOWAC is celebrating ten years of existence, with “its vision becoming more and more real.”

Background of our focus series "heroines promoting women's rights"

Truly equal rights for women and men are still not reality – anywhere in the world. But without them there cannot be an end to sexualised wartime violence and there will not be peace – anywhere in the world. During the year we will present remarkable women and men from many different countries who have been or are active in the fight for the rights of women. We do this to pay tribute to their individual efforts and achievements, and also to remind us all that active commitment is still needed if we are to achieve gender justice and an end to sexualised violence. 

Read also the Story of Elisabeth Selbert - promiting Women's Rights in Germany