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In the midst of the civil war that has devastated northern Uganda for more than two decades, Milly Auma is helping women who were once held captive by the Lord’s Resistance Army return to their communities and rebuild their lives. For ten years Milly lived in captivity and she now uses her personal experiences to inform her organization’s counseling services and economic programs.

This profile below was prepared when Milly Auma was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


In the midst of the civil war that has devastated northern Uganda for more than two decades, Milly Auma is helping women who were once held captive by the Lord’s Resistance Army return to their communities and rebuild their lives. For ten years Milly lived in captivity and she now uses her personal experiences to inform her organization’s counseling services and economic programs.


Milly is mending broken relationships between formerly abducted women in Uganda and their home communities. She has built the first corps of women returnees dedicated to creating peace between former abductees, their children, and the communities displaced by the war that now live in internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps.

Through guidance and counseling programs, Milly uses her personal experience to provide psychosocial support and to build an environment of understanding and acceptance of returnees. By staging plays with themes developed around their experiences in the bush as prisoners of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Milly, along with other returnees, generates empathy for what these young women have lived through and breaks down strong barriers of mistrust and hatred.

Through her organization Empowering Hands, Milly has also established an economic development program that supports formerly abducted women and other IDPs alike. Milly and her colleagues have currently replicated their model in five camps in Gulu and Amuru Districts in northern Uganda and are serving over 1,200 people. As the war ends and more women return from captivity, Milly plans to spread her work throughout the region’s 500 IDP camps.


Northern Uganda has been described by the United Nations’ High Commission on Refugees as one of the world’s most neglected humanitarian crisis zones. For over two decades, a civil war between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by rebel leader Joseph Kony, has devastated the region. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, large numbers have been orphaned, and millions more have been displaced. In its bloody campaign, the LRA has used cruel and inhumane tactics to terrorize communities in northern Uganda. Young boys and girls are the targets of abductions and are later turned into child soldiers who, to prove their allegiance and spare their own lives, are forced to kill and mutilate their own family members, friends, and neighbors. Countless such acts have created deep-seated hatred and mistrust between the abductees and their former communities.

Nearly a third of the child soldiers in northern Uganda are female. And for young girl abductees, time spent in the bush with the LRA is particularly harrowing. They are often forced to serve as wives to senior rebel soldiers and many, kidnapped when they themselves were only children, enter motherhood in captivity. After years of life in the bush, some abductees find the chance to escape with their children and, in so doing, return to the communities they used to call home. Of course, most villages have been all but destroyed by the war while most that have been spared have long been abandoned as people sought refuge in IDP camps set up by the government in selected protected areas. Instead of retuning to a normal life in the only homes they knew, escapees of the LRA struggle to start over in one of 500 area IDP camps that have been established while they were in captivity and now house some 4 million displaced people.

For people living in the camps, the wounds inflicted by the LRA are still fresh and the relationship between former abductees and displaced communities—even inside families—is greatly strained. Instead of being warmly welcomed back, former abductees are usually met by their communities with rejection and fear. Women who have been abducted, tortured, and raped find that the deepest hurt can come from this rejection. The tension, mistrust, and hatred that lingers has made it difficult for once vibrant and peaceful communities to rebuild.

While many external agencies staffed by well-meaning individuals try to help in the important work of reconciliation and rebuilding through counseling, foreigners and even local non-abductees cannot relate to the experiences these women have been through. Aid organizations have, therefore, struggled to engage returned abductees and have failed to address other pressing needs like job creation, remedial education, healthcare provision, and family reunification.

The challenges in the region continue despite a tentative peace deal in early 2008. Hundreds of children are still being abducted and thousands are still being held in the bush. And while an end to the war would be welcomed worldwide, not all local communities are yet ready to embrace former abductees back into their lives.


Milly was kidnapped by the LRA at the age of thirteen and, after ten years in bush, escaped with her two children who were born in captivity. When she returned to her home, she was shocked to find that her trials were far from over. Her community feared and rejected her and tormented her children, calling them “KonyKony.” Milly soon found that other women returnees were facing the same discrimination. In fact, when she met a number of women who found readjustment so hard that they confessed they were thinking about returning with their children to the bush.

In 2002, Milly organized an initial group of four women to register as returned abductees with the Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO) and together try to support themselves and their children. In addition to securing scholarships for sewing classes and helping the group start a small tailoring business, Milly started to meet many other returned abductees who were shunned by their communities. Their challenges were similar: They needed counseling, help reuniting with family, assistance in finding jobs, and opportunities to continue their education. Milly wanted to help these women and show the world that even war-affected women can rebuild their lives and contribute to their communities as mother and grandmothers, workers and friends.

By 2004 Milly had drawn together thirty-six women and formed a dialogue corps that conducted peer counseling and took photographs to raise education as well as income for the group. When UNICEF offered initial funding, Milly knew she needed to formally name her organization and, inspired by the photos corps members took of women’s hands at work grinding flour, sewing, and comforting children, she registered “Empowering Hands” as a Ugandan citizen organization.

Since that time, these 36 women have become counselors themselves and, in groups of five, they work in five IDP camps in two northern Ugandan districts. In each camp, they first approach community leaders and ask for permission to convene groups of women. They then turn to GUSCO for a list of women who have registered as former abductees. Two hundred such women as well as fifty women who have not been abducted form a group—the foundation for individual and group counseling. Sharing their experiences with each other proves to be a cathartic experience for many participants—and sharing their struggles with the entire camp through dramas helps the community empathize with and accept former abductees and their children.

The work of Empowering Hands is not limited to returned abductees. Milly realized that providing services that address only one group of women was insufficient to rebuild the severely broken families and communities. So, in the spirit of fostering community integration, Empowering Hands opened a community loan fund where any woman can borrow money and repay in installments. Though the initial investment in this fund came from the profits of the women’s own microenterprises, it is now supplemented by three years of funding from Glamour Magazine. (Milly and Empowering Hands won Glamour Magazine’s 2007 Women of the Year Awards.) However, significant funding and support still comes from the women themselves. Milly strives to instill in her group members a sense of volunteerism and asks that members contribute to Empowering Hands as their incomes allow.

Empowering Hands employs a coordinator and an account manager in each camp in which it works. This local presence is critical for responding quickly and effectively to local needs: For example, matching women living with HIV/AIDS to international organizations in the area with resources to help, or connecting women with educational opportunities. In this way, Empowering Hands is able to continue its core work of counseling and community reconciliation while also helping other citizen organizations work more effectively with returned abductees and other women.

Empowering Hands works with more than 1,300 women in five camps. Milly hopes to cover all of Gulu and Amuru Districts over the next year and then expand to the IDP camps in three other northern Ugandan districts. She also plans to expand Empowering Hands’ education and health programs. In order to spread quickly, Milly will draw the next group of field workers and counselors from current communities being served. Based on the success of her model and the dedication of current beneficiaries, Milly sees no reason why Empowering Hands cannot someday work in all 500 IDP camps in the area. The biggest challenge for Empowering Hands is, ironically, that successful peace talks in northern Uganda won’t be matched by equally successful efforts to anticipate and meet the needs of returning abductees. With this in mind, Empowering Hands is working to prepare communities to reintegrate returnees and, together, rebuild.


Milly grew up in a large family in northern Uganda. She was well-liked by her eleven siblings and well known for her love of children. But in 1994 her childhood was cut short when she was abducted by the LRA at just thirteen years old. While in captivity, Milly found herself caring for children. She was assigned to a senior LRA commander as one of his younger wives. In hindsight, Milly considers herself lucky. She was not forced to carry a gun, found she had enough to eat, and, though she risked her life to do so, was able to steal food to share with other girls who were far less fortunate.

In 2002, amid fighting between the LRA and the government of Uganda, Milly escaped with her two children, then aged six and three. However, when she returned to her home, she faced for the first time the hatred and rejection that so many returnees experience and was turned away. She quickly found other women in similar positions, including some who had taken to calling her “Mommy” given her tendency to nurture and protect.

With a small group of women, Milly found an apartment and arranged for tailoring and English lessons for herself and her housemates. Milly started to feel that she had regained control of her life but was still disturbed by the prejudice returned abductees and their children faced. So, with the help of these housemates and meager funds from their tailoring business (and important logistical and morale support from friends at Quaker Peace and Social Witness in Gulu), Milly started convening groups of women and conducting individual and group counseling sessions—work that soon became the foundation for Empowering Hands.