Women on the Move Uganda: an SAD football for mental health programme
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In 2016, violence in South Sudan was escalating and SAD’s project ‘Women on the Move’ was on the verge of collapse. A few months later in a refugee camp in Uganda, former participants took up sport and play activities again. These activities help the women to come to terms with the new trauma.

Bledina stops the ball at chest height and boots it over the heads of the other team and into the goal. She reaches towards the afternoon sky, her teammates celebrating with rhythmic dancing. The spectators cheer from the sidelines of the clay football pitch. 1:0, the lead is well deserved.

Two years ago, Bledina fled South Sudan. She spent three days on trails fleeing through the bush. “It was difficult with the children and carrying all the luggage on my head,” she explains. Her husband stayed in South Sudan. Her oldest daughter was five years old at the time. They got to the refugee camp in Uganda in the middle of the rainy season, “I didn’t have anything to protect the children. The rain drenched them with nothing to stop it.”

Village life and tarpaulin

The refugee camp Palorinya suggests normality and is barely distinguishable from an average northern Ugandan village; rooves made out of UN tarpaulins shine in the sun. Palorinya is around 30 kilometres from the South Sudanese border. In an area of 40 square kilometres 120,000 refugees from South Sudan live side-by-side with Ugandan locals.

They left me in the middle of the bush and shouted, ‘Find a space!’” Cecilia flaps her arms imitating the officials who brought her to Palorinya after she registered as a refugee. “People were ripping up the tall grass with their hands to make space to build a hut.” The 60-year-old is now here cheering from the sidelines. You can’t miss her in her lime green t-shirt with a life-size turtle shell on it.

As a single woman, she didn’t get a good plot. “The men took all the good plots,” she explains. Hers is boggy, when she planted potatoes, they got washed away by the rain. But that is nothing compared to the loss of her children, “If I think about that, my brain burns.” Cecilia fled a couple of weeks after Bledina, “I fled on 5 February 2017. It was a Sunday. I fled on my own with only my bedding.” Cecilia had to leave her goats and pigs behind. Her five sons died.

In 2011, after decades of conflict with the north, South Sudan became independent. But hope – shared by the international community – was damaged in 2013 by a bitter struggle for political power and resources. Armed troops looted and burned villages to the ground, abducting, torturing and killing civilians. According to a 2018 study, 400,000 people were killed in the conflict. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported a horrifying number of mass rapes used as a weapon of war. There are currently almost two million internally displaced people in South Sudan, and 2.3 million people have left the country. One third of them are living in refugee settlements in northern Uganda.

Souvenirs and beginnings

There is almost an equaliser. A woman in a bleached red t-shirt rushes to kick the ball away from the goal. She later introduces herself as Gloria. The back of her t-shirt says ‘Women on the Move.’ “I got this top in 2012,” explains Gloria. That is when SAD and local NGO South Sudan Psychosocial Programme (SSPP) launched a project in South Sudan to support women traumatised by war and other violence. Through sport and play they developed strategies for better coping with their experiences. Games were used as a platform for exploring taboo topics and sharing experiences, but football was the real highlight and a symbol of empowerment. When the participants had to choose a sport, they went for football, which is taboo for women in South Sudan. The ‘Women on the Move’ slogan is “What men can do, women have been able to do for a long time.

In 2012, Gloria had just left school and was unhappily married. ‘Women on the Move’ helped her to make the best of the situation: “The women supported and encouraged me.” When Gloria fled to Uganda in 2016, she brought her shirt with her, “I couldn’t leave it behind.” Gloria laughs and turns her head away with embarrassment. “I hoped ‘Women on the Move’ would somehow survive.

Not long after Gloria’s arrival in Palorinya, more and more women spoke to the coaches who had also fled. They began leading sessions again on a voluntary basis. When they finally tracked down Kenneth Godi, the leader of the organisation, and part of the core team, ‘Women on the Move Uganda’ took shape. “The strong will of the people motivated me to do something again.


Football (Soccer)

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