Wartime Forced Marriage and Sexual Slavery in Africa Cases from Uganda and Sierra Leone

Years after civil wars have ended in northern Uganda and Sierra Leone, women abducted by rebel groups who are victims of forced marriage and sexual slavery continue to experience exclusion. Their experiences reveal that reintegration is not linear but lifelong and potentially intergenerational.

In 1998, international law via the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) recognized sexual slavery as a war crime. In 2002, the Special Court for Sierra Leone pioneered the recognition of the practice. In March 2009, Trial Chamber I of the Court found three high-ranking members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) guilty of crimes against humanity, namely rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage (under the category of ‘other inhumane acts’). The decision marked the first time an international criminal tribunal entered convictions of a crime of forced marriage. The Trial Chamber confirmed Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings that girls and women were subjected to sexual and gender-based violence during the war in Sierra Leone. These legal developments have had a direct impact in Uganda.

On 8 July 2005, the ICC prosecutor officially issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader and his top four allies/commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. On 6 December 2016, Trial Chamber IX of the ICC commenced its trial against Dominic Ongwen, one of the five LRA commanders indicted. Presently, the other three are dead, and only Kony is at large. Ongwen was accused of 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. On 4 February 2021, Trial Chamber IX found Ongwen guilty of all 19 counts of sexual and gender-based violence charges, including sexual slavery, forced marriage, rape, enslavement and forced pregnancy.  The trial was the first in which the ICC convicted a rebel commander for forced pregnancy as a war crime and a crime against humanity. It was also the first time that the ICC convicted forced marriage (charged under the category of ‘other inhumane acts’), constituting a crime against humanity.

The debate in research is whether these wartime practices should be interpreted as constituting modern slavery or different phenomena. Slavery remains a legal concept, with the 1926 Slavery Convention defining it as ‘the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.’


In 2012 and 2013, six to seven years after the war ended in northern Uganda in 2006, I conducted six months of ethnographic research in four Acholi region districts, namely Kitgum, Lamwo, Pader and Gulu. I undertook this research for my doctoral studies, now a forthcoming book, Gender, Conflict and Reintegration in Uganda: Abducted Girls, Returning Women. Similarly, in 2018, 16 years after the war ended in Sierra Leone, I conducted three months of fieldwork in Koinadugu District, Northern Province and the capital, Freetown. In both studies, I held interviews with women abducted by rebel groups for several years during each of these conflicts.

The primary aim of this research was to gain insight into conflict and post-conflict reintegration (processes and experiences) from a longitudinal perspective, considering particularly how they were influenced by gender. I approached the research from the interviewees’ perspectives and interactions with sociocultural contexts. I found that several years after the end of the wars in northern Uganda and Sierra Leone, these women continued to experience exclusion, enduring lifelong consequences because of their rebel abduction and involvement. Their experiences reveal that reintegration is not unswerving and linear but, instead, lifelong and potentially intergenerational.


Over time, researchers, policymakers, and the international community have justifiably placed greater attention on girls and women like my research interviewees who have experienced abduction in contemporary African wars. The magnitude of sexual violence against girls and women has brought wartime sexual violence to the forefront of international debate, with researchers and international law focusing upon the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. While analysis of this kind sometimes extends to post-conflict experiences, the primary focus tends to be during the war and the immediate aftermath rather than longer-term experiences. My research in Uganda and Sierra Leone shows that while an analysis of the women’s experiences during the conflict is crucial, the tendency to prioritize this over their pre-and post-conflict experiences flattens and renders invisible important broader social, cultural, economic and political structures that significantly influence how people experience conflict. Indeed, I found that pre-conflict gender and patriarchal norms and ideologies considerably shaped how the interviewees experienced both the era of conflict and post-conflict in Uganda and Sierra Leone. I understood that normative frameworks of gender and patriarchy underpinned wartime sexual violence and forced marriage in these countries.

Notably, studies on forced marriage often focus on experiences of sexual slavery and, more recently, forced pregnancy. As a consequence, methodologies have prioritized the sexual aspect of forced marriage that abducted girls endure while overlooking or ignoring non-sexual experiences. However, forced marriage is a loaded, multi-layered and complex practice that needs careful unpacking.

Research and intervention institutions rely on activist-oriented normative approaches to foreground women and their experiences as helpless victims of war who need saving. They often miss or de-centralize their (and their communities’) voices and perspectives on wartime practices and experiences. My research suggests that if we wish to learn about wartime practices of abduction, sexual violence, forced marriage, and their long-term impacts on survivors (and thus be better equipped to address them and their needs), survivors and their voices must be foregrounded, centred and amplified in these debates and interventions. Re-centring survivors’ interaction with rebel and home contexts is ethical and helpful in comprehending wartime practices of sexual violence, sexual slavery, and forced marriage. Indeed, in Ongwen’s case, the ICC verdict highlighted the seven women abducted and held in his LRA homestead as his wives for several years.  The conviction sends a crucial message that survivors of abduction, sexual violence and forced marriage: their experiences and voices matter in any intervention. It also acknowledges the potential long-term impacts of abduction and forced marriage upon the survivors, including challenges of stigma, discrimination, depression and trauma.


The protracted wars in northern Uganda (1986-2006) and Sierra Leone (1991-2002) were brought to the world’s attention through images and stories of experiences of extreme violence, abduction, mass displacement, sexual violence and widespread shocking atrocities in the form of amputations. During these wars, girls and women saw the protective fabric around them collapse as the violence destroyed homes, uprooted families, weakened kinships and consumed communities. The rebels also uprooted and forced girls and women to join their campaign of violence against those in government.

Sierra Leonean rebel groups and militias, including the RUF, Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and Kamajors, abducted thousands of women and girls. Reports estimate that more than 250,000 women and girls were subjected to sexual violence, including rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, abduction, enslavement, and torture. Others indicate that the RUF carried out more than 60 per cent of abductions of women and girls, and most reported cases of sexual slavery. While these statistics are debatable, they suggest the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence during the Sierra Leone war. In 2002, the Sierra Leonean Parliament established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a transitional justice mechanism to promote post-war healing and reconciliation. The Commission conducted extensive research and held hearings for victims and perpetrators. It held a special hearing for women and girls, resulting in a separate report detailing sexual and gender-based violence women suffered during the war. Notably, the Commission confirmed the findings of previous studies; that rebel groups, militias and government forces committed rape, forced marriage, sexual slavery.

Similarly, the Ugandan rebel group, LRA, returned to northern Uganda, from their base in what is now South Sudan, to raid and loot civilian villages. Under Kony’s leadership, the LRA rebellion abducted tens of thousands of adolescents and teenagers and inducted them into the LRA’s campaign of violence against the Ugandan government. It is estimated that the group abducted between 54,000 and 75,000 people, including between 25,000 and 38,000 adolescents and teenagers. Estimates indicate that more than 30 per cent of the LRA comprised of girl and women abductees.


The Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission defined sexual slavery as the ‘exercise of any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over one or more persons and the forced participation in one or more acts of sexual violence.’ Moreover, the Special Court for Sierra Leone identified three elements of sexual slavery, namely:

⎈  The Accused exercised any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over one or more  persons, such as by purchasing, selling, lending or bartering such a person or persons, or by imposing on them a similar deprivation of liberty;

⎈  The Accused caused such a person or persons to engage in one or more acts of a sexual nature; and

⎈  The Accused intended to exercise the act of sexual slavery or acted in the reasonable knowledge that this was likely to occur.

The elements rightly focused attention on the actions of the perpetrator, linking the crime of sexual slavery with the widely recognized crime against humanity of enslavement. The Rome Statute of the ICC in Article 7(2)(c) defines enslavement as ‘the exercise of any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over a person …’  In the Ongwen case, Trial Chamber IX explained that

‘The crime of sexual slavery is a specific form of the crime of “enslavement”, penalising the perpetrator’s restriction or control of the victim’s sexual autonomy while held in the state of enslavement. The crime of sexual slavery, whether as a crime against humanity or war crime, is committed when the material element of enslavement is fulfilled and the perpetrator also caused such person or persons to engage in one or more acts of a sexual nature.’

My research shows that sexual slavery in Sierra Leone and Uganda manifested in two ways: firstly, through the framework of forced marriage, and secondly, through everyday sexual slavery in the rebel camps. Consider these two experiences:

He placed us [six women] in sets of two women, each under a single roof. We lived side by side with our children. He used us as sex slaves, inviting us in shifts into his bedroom hut, constructed separately. He ruled us by the ultimatum, and our lives were between thin lines of death and life (interviewee, Uganda).

In the first group that captured me, three men used to sex me. After some time, another group came from nowhere and dispatched us. We all scattered, and I fell into a new group. As you thought that things were getting better within one group, you found yourself into another new group of rebels. So what they asked you is what you did. In the second group, some men also did me the same thing [sexed] as the previous group…. Even in the third group, the same thing happened….uhmm, my sister; it is only God that I did not die from my vagina problems (interviewee, Sierra Leone).

I found that Ugandan interviewees experienced sexual, conjugal and domestic slavery via institutionalized forced marriage within the LRA. In the Ongwen case, Trial Chamber IX found that ‘the LRA abducted and enslaved, and used [girls/women] as sexual slaves and so called “wives”, and as domestic servants, … in a coordinated and methodical effort.’ While most women I worked with in Sierra Leone experienced forced marriage, some women in the sample were subjected to sexual and domestic slavery outside forced marriage, as the above account suggests. Interviews show that it was common for rebels to abduct girls and women, and to keep them in camps, subjecting them to gang rape and sexual slavery. Consequently, the above Sierra Leonean woman saw herself as having been exploited as a sexual slave throughout her four-year stay with different rebel groups.

In the RUF case, Trial Chamber I of the Special Court described forced marriage as forced conjugal relationships, with rebel men forcing abducted girls and women to maintain an exclusive sexual relationship with them and show loyalty to them (as their ‘husbands’). ‘Wives’ were expected to care for their husbands, do domestic chores, bear children, and carry extra work for their husbands. While the RUF trial judgment led to the first convictions for the crime of forced marriage, the AFRC trial and appeals judgment explored the practice in detail. The trial chamber described forced marriage as ‘a perpetrator compelling a person by force or threat of force, through the words or conduct of the perpetrator or those associated with him, into a forced conjugal association with another person resulting in great suffering, or serious physical or mental injury on the part of the victim.’ The chamber stated that the rebel husbands understood the power they held over their ‘wives’ and were aware that they (the women) had not consented to the ‘marriage’.

The women I met in Uganda and Sierra Leone reported that the rebels subjected them to forced marriages where they performed sexual and domestic roles under the threat of death. They ended up with one commander, where they had a monogamous relationship, remaining under the captor husband’s total control as his ‘wife’. The women used matrimonial terms such as ‘marriage’, ‘wife’ and ‘husband’ to describe their sexual and conjugal slavery.  They used several statements to express their experiences. Some of these included ‘I was forced to be with that man’, ‘I had to do it to survive’, ‘This man did not treat me bad’ and ‘That marriage was bad’ among other phrases. Interviews show that in both countries, rebel commanders dictated this language of ‘marriage’, revealing that girls ‘were abducted to serve as wife and soldier’, as one Ugandan interviewee reported.  I understood that rebel commanders in both countries used the term ‘wife’ and ‘marriage’ to manipulate abducted girls and women into enslavement.

Ugandan interviews show that LRA commanders distributed abducted girls amongst themselves as wives. One woman reported that ‘One evening, I was given to a man as my husband. He was about 40 years of age. That night many of us [newly abducted girls] cried while being raped by such big men’ (interviewee, Uganda). Narratives of distribution to men are consistent with this description. Like the LRA’s forced marriage practice, this rape initiated these girls’ journeys as forced wives. Commanders were polygamous and could have several wives and large families, with some commanders housing more than 20 women.

In this institutionalized forced marriage, men did not sexually engage with women who were not their wives. Practices of adultery and abandoning wives were severely prohibited. Indeed, ‘breaking up with a woman or abandoning her for another woman were not accepted, and such acts could lead to the death penalty by execution. They did not tolerate such acts as switching or cheating because they said it would spread diseases and bring bad luck’ (interviewee, Uganda).

When a rebel husband died on the battlefield or of natural causes, commanders transferred his ‘widow’ to another man. The LRA leadership relied on marriage to regulate sexual behaviour in the movement and limit the spreading of diseases and civilian rapes, and random rapes of abducted girls. Marriage stabilized men, maintaining their loyalty (focus) on the movement and its objectives. However, rape, sexual, conjugal and domestic slavery that evolved within forced marriages had social and ethical validity. As a result, by not permitting rape and gang rape in the rebel camps, the leadership exerted control over the combatants, ensuring that they respected some social norms about marriage in northern Uganda even as they brazenly broke with others.

Similarly, my Sierra Leonean research participants experienced forced marriage, where strict sexual and conjugal conduct rules were imposed, although these were less stringent compared to those imposed by the LRA. In the RUF or AFRC rape outside marriage and adultery was not as severely punishable. Consequently, some forced marriages started as rapes, gang rapes and sexual slavery. Consider these two experiences:

I cannot recall, but five or six men sexed me on that day [of capture] and deflowered/virginated me. I did not know about sex. They continued sexing me because I did not have any rescuer. They sexed me, not once, twice or thrice. It was like a habit. When one finished with me, another held me. I had no option to deny…. But there was a Commander, not a total Commander, but second in command [in her unit].  He was one of Foday Sankoh’s boys. He rescued me from that sexing. He started sexing me alone (interviewee, Sierra Leone).

At first, I was sexed by anyone in the joe bush [where rebels were camped, in the jungle/bush]. …. Then I was now with that rebel guy, like my supporter/husband. If I said I did not want him, he could have killed me. If I had said I didn’t want him, how would I survive in the jungle? In the jungle, you should have someone or else you would not survive… So they told us, ‘join me, and I will save your life’. They said unless we joined them [as a sexual partner], our lives could not be saved. You had to have sex for you to survive…. It was not our wish to do that, you see! (Interviewee, Sierra Leone).

However, in both countries, rejecting the orders of commanders was incredibly risky, as this could trigger instant and brutal punishment, including severe beatings, which could tragically end in death. A Ugandan interviewee reported that while she was being beaten for resisting forced marriage, her captor commander emphasized that ‘they were demonstrating to me that they held absolute authority over me.’ If women attempted to escape rebel abduction, they risked death, recapture, and community ostracism. My findings show that rebels invoked the language of ‘marriage’ to structure their sexual, conjugal and domestic slavery of abducted girls and women, even if sometimes these practices occurred outside the forced marriage framework. Either way, commanders attached the right of ownership over abducted women, forcing them to do everything that the commanders wanted.

Forced marriage involves sexual and non-sexual features alike. However, research and international law have focused on sexual slavery, prioritizing one type of suffering that abducted women endured while overlooking or ignoring non-sexual experiences. In my research, sexual slavery provides a framework to understand the loss of freedom and sexual abuse my research participants suffered but does not capture their conjugal and domestic slavery. Indeed, in an analysis of their post-war lives and reintegration, forced marriage as a continuing crime emerges, with formerly abducted women seeing abduction and forced marriage experience as a form of enslavement. Several years after the end of the wars in Uganda and Sierra Leone, my interviewees viewed forced marriages negatively, owing to low levels of self-identification (enslavement) with the rebels and the social stigma that followed these relationships post-war.

When the war ended, the women in my research reunited with communities that attach violence mainly to masculinity. Their personal histories of military recruitment challenged numerous social, cultural and spiritual norms. Notably, communities viewed them as having violated traditional gender norms and thereby as a threat to the patriarchal order. They were characterized as lacking personal and feminine qualities of purity, innocence, peacefulness and obedience. Now their communities viewed and classified them as having lower social status, suggesting that abduction and sexual violence placed them outside the local social harmony. Yet, it was in these contexts that their reintegration had to take place. While their families and communities welcomed their return, at least initially, there was often limited appreciation or empathy regarding their rebel experiences, creating tensions between them and their communities. Many experienced social stigma, with locals placing them on the periphery of community life and viewing them with suspicion and fear. This exclusion denied them equal status as women and citizens in their communities. My findings support the Special Court’s conclusion that the harm of forced marriage is not limited to the physical and psychological effects of serving as a ‘wife, but carries an enduring social stigma that hampers survivors’ recovery from war trauma and reintegration into post-war society.’ My materials suggest a methodology that recognizes forced marriage’s conjugal nature and the forced marriage status bestowed on abducted girls and women. They propose considering the impact of the crime of forced marriage as more than a combination of its sub-experiences of abduction, sexual slavery, rape, forced pregnancy and forced labour, among others.


In my research, I am interested in the relationship between gender and forced marriage and reintegration. In Uganda and Sierra Leone, I found that the relationship took two directions, with abducted women and men differently affected. Owing to gender stratifications inherent in local culture and society, rebel structures consigned girls and women to a lower social hierarchy than boys and men, reflecting local gender inequalities and patriarchal hierarchies. Forced marriage became a social institution where strict regulations, power structures and social hierarchies existed to regulate how women related to men in rebel homesteads.

Adopting societal patriarchal values, rebel groups accorded a higher social status to male commanders, giving them power and authority over their domicile, including wives, children and ordinary combatants. Mimicking community ideas of gender roles and marital obligations, a rebel husband provided for his household and ensured that everyone abided by rebel rules. They provided an authorised household, supplies, coordination and security. They offered physical protection against other acts of violence for household subordinates. For their part, women occupied lower social status, taking on roles as sexual partners, mothers and domestic workers, including cooks, water collectors, porters, food producers and gatherers. Consequently, the forced marriage system under which girls/women experienced sexual, conjugal and domestic slavery was embedded in existing local gender ideologies and patriarchal values that rebel leadership in both countries skilfully acted out, using violence.

I understood the treatment that confronted my interviewees in Uganda and Sierra Leone as reflecting peacetime attitudes. Notably, their experiences were embedded in societal patriarchal values, gender ideologies and marriage customs that promoted the vulnerability of girls through violence pre-war and before rebel abduction. Their experiences show continuity with local peacetime ideas of sexuality, marriage relations and motherhood, as well as definitions of childhood and adulthood, among others. They show that rebel practices did not represent a decisive break with the ‘norms’ of peacetime, although rebel practices were sometimes extreme and brutal versions of peacetime models. Rebel leaderships and strategies in both countries were thus embedded in the societal gender ideas, institutions and patriarchy they had taken part in (i.e., that they, themselves, were socialized in)

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