Northern Uganda is one of the most-underdeveloped regions in the world. More than 60% of the population lives in poverty. Three decades of ongoing conflict has limited government control over the region, and further isolated already remote communities where the need for medical and psychosocial support is greatest. A generalized lack of adequate health, educational facilities, and transport infrastructure mean thousands of Ugandans, particularly women and children, succumb to preventable illness each year. Serious medical and psycho-social conditions go untreated.
The roots of conflict in Uganda can be traced back to the legacy of social exclusion left over from the colonial period and continued under successive post-independence regimes. Generally speaking, ethnic groups in the North of Uganda comes from a different cultural and economic tradition than their counterparts in the South. Regional and localized grievances stemming from Northern Ugandans’ real or perceived marginalization at the hands of the central government spawned multiple rebel movements, many of which targeted innocent civilians.
The most infamous of these groups – the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – raided villages in the North of the country beginning in 1987, abducting children from their homes, and raping, murdering, and mutilating those left behind. The Ugandan army chased the LRA and its infamous leader, Joseph Kony, over the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, a defeat which sparked calls for negotiations with the state from senior level officers within the LRA. A two-year effort to broker peace between the Ugandan government and the exiled LRA collapsed in 2008 after the group’s infamous leader, Joseph Kony, refused to sign the final agreement at the last moment. Despite Kony’s commitment to fight on, the LRA’s numbers have since dwindled. More than 26,000 low-level LRA officers and soldiers have accepted the Ugandan government’s offer of amnesty since it was enacted in 2000, and only 250 fighters are thought to still be active. Kony and remnants of his group continue to hide out in the densely forested border region spanning the DR Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan, intermittently emerging to launch attacks on remote villages.
Between 2011 and 2013, Karuna Center administered the STEP-UP (Sustain, Train, Educate and Promote Uganda) program. STEP-UP builds local civil society’s capacity to provide badly-needed medical and psychosocial support to communities affected by the ongoing state of war in Northern Uganda, operating through a partnership with STEP UP Uganda – a not-for-profit, Ugandan-run, community-based organization. The project – staffed by a group of volunteer U.S.-based health and social service professionals – is predicated on the belief that medical and psychosocial well-being provide a solid foundation for long-term peace and development.
Under the umbrella of Karuna Center and though a combination of annual site visits and year-round technical assistance, the STEP-UP project team collaborated with partners at STEP-UP Uganda to conduct two series of Training of Trainers workshops. The first coached STEP-UP Uganda and local Ugandan health providers on critical issues including child nutrition and hydration, malaria prevention, safe sex, and neonatal resuscitation. The second equipped opinion leaders, community officials, and religious leaders with the skills and competencies they need to diagnosis and treat psychiatric illness resulting from war-related trauma.
NOTE: Since the beginning of 2014, the STEP-UP program is no longer administered through the Karuna Center. Its new home is with the Institute for Training and Development, located in Amherst, MA. Learn more about STEP-UP's ongoing efforts by clicking here.