A window of hope for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence living in Nakivale Refugee Settlement

English for Adults (EFA): A window of hope for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence living in Nakivale Refugee Settlement


While many asylum seekers and refugees have experienced conflict-related sexual violence or torture, few disclose this and access the support they need. Lack of English language skills turns out to be one of the reasons for this, and English for Adults one of the solutions.

Uganda currently hosts the highest number of asylum seekers and refugees in Africa and the third in the world. This is attributed to her liberal refugee policies, security as well as the hospitality of Ugandans. June 2020 statistics from the Office of the Prime Minister indicate that Uganda has over 1,424,373 refugees and asylum seekers.

The majority of refugees are settled in various settlements in rural areas, including Nakivale, and a minority are recognised as urban refugees in the capital city. UNHCR data shows that in 2020 Nakivale, one of the country's oldest refugee settlements, hosted 132,811 refugees (9.3% of the national total).

In their countries of origin and on their way to the host country, refugees and asylum seekers face many human rights violations, including sexual violence and torture. Despite Uganda’s and UNHCR’s implementing and operating partners’ protection support to refugees and asylum seekers, refugees struggle with physical, psychosocial and mental challenges stemming from conflict-related sexual violence.

There are different yet related definitions of sexual violence. Lewis (2009) defines sexual violence as any violence, physical and mental, through sexual means or by targeting sexuality.  World Health Organization (2011) describes sexual violence as “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting”.

United Nations (2014) defines Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) as incidents or patterns of sexual violence against women, men, girls or boys occurring in a conflict or post-conflict setting that have direct or indirect links with the conflict itself or that occur in other situations of concern such as in the context of political repression.

Conflict-related sexual violence takes many forms, including (as set out in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court) rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced sterilization, forced marriage, and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity. These acts directly or indirectly inflict pain to the victim and the community as a whole.

Research indicates that many victims of conflict-related sexual violence suffer unhealed memories and physical pain in silence. Dolan (2017) argues that humanitarian practice generally waits for survivors of CRSV to come for assistance, which most of them don’t do. This is attributed to fear of shame of being identified as victims or survivors of sexual violence, inadequate information about the services for survivors, language barrier, and few trusted people to confide in, among other reasons. The latter deters victims’ access to various services (medical, psychosocial, justice etc.) even where the services may be available. This increases the sense of hopelessness among the victims.

English for Adults as a way to increase disclosure

In a bid to empower forced migrants speak for themselves in situations that threaten their rights, Refugee Law Project (RLP) with funding from Democratic Facility (DGF), the Embassy of Netherlands, UN-Women and the Fund for Global Human rights extended English for Adults (EFA) course to refugees in settlements under the Access to Justice Program. The aim is to enable adult refugees to understand confidently, speak, read and write the English language. The English for Adults (EFA) learning centre in Nakivale benefits over 1000 refugees and asylum seekers annually.

The learning and facilitation process is guided by “Speak Your Rights Curriculum” tailored to refugee rights. The registration process of learners seeks to cater for all nationalities and categories, such as survivors of torture (SOT), sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) survivors or victims, persons with disabilities (PWD), minority groups like albinos, youth and elderly from 15 years and above.

This has brought in various beneficiaries profiting from the program. As a Community English for Adult Facilitator (CEFA), I have seen learners benefit from the programme in several different ways. Achievements reported include speaking for themselves, getting jobs, returning to school, and starting different income-generating activities. These realizations have been dynamic per different categories of clients served.

In 2019, the centre benefited 1,006 (648M, 358F) learners. As the year progressed, we came to know that of these, at least 50 were survivors of sexual violence (35 females, 15 males), and 44 were survivors of torture (30 males, 14 females). A number of these EFA learners have testified how EFA has been vital for them to access services at RLP and other partners and other legal institutions like the police. Three dimensions of the EFA process stand out from their testimonies:

First, it has bridged the information gap. English for Adult learning process begins with a one-week orientation, during which RLP and other implementing partners' services are shared, making beneficiaries aware of available services. This initiates the referral pathway for EFA beneficiaries (Survivors of sexual violence) to access medical, psychosocial, and other services.

Since 2019, Nakivale EFA learning centre internally referred 35 (21 males, 14 females) learners (survivors) for psychosocial, legal and medical support. At the same time, EFA received 10 (7 female, 3 male) referrals internally and externally. A male survivor and an EFA learner from the Democratic Republic of Congo had this to say to one of the facilitators after treatment;

“I didn’t know that the Refugee Law Project takes sick people who were tortured to the hospital. One day when our facilitator was teaching, he told us about Brian (SGBV assistant) who is listening to peoples’ war-related experiences. The next day I made an appointment with him. I shared with him my experience, and he told me I would be taken to the hospital for treatment. Indeed I was taken and treated. I’m now doing well compared to the previous situation. If it was not through EFA, I think I wouldn’t be able to know this and I would be still suffering.

Secondly, EFA breaks the culture of silence among survivors/victims of sexual violence. Usually, non-disclosure blocks survivors from accessing services that would be available for them. Hence this results in a sense of hopelessness among the victims. However, English for Adults has empowered refugees, including survivors, to open up quickly and speak up. This is due to limiting the use of third parties (interpreters) in experience-sharing processes, thus countering the non-disclosure problem. Brian Lwanga, a Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Assistant with the Refugee Law Project says,

“Clients who can use English in the screening process open up to share their experiences easily compared to those where an interpreter is used. This is because they are not scared of confidentiality [being broken]”.

Additionally, EFA involves an extended interaction between the facilitators and learners, which aids in building a sense of trust between them. This trust in turn makes survivors able to confide in their facilitators partially. One of the learners from Level 4 asked a question; “What if a woman was tortured and she does not want anyone to know about it?” I directly referred her to the SGBV assistant for screening for her war-related experiences. On following up, she was further referred to the psychosocial counsellor for counselling services, and her situation has improved.



The trust also enables survivors to make more in-depth inquiry about services available for them hence initiating the referral pathways. Kato Moses (Not real name), a learner/survivor from DRC, was quoted saying;

“Teacher I’m suffering, that is why I don’t attend class regularly. I was beaten while in DRC, and I developed complications.  Sometimes I cannot be able to walk. So you will pardon me if I don’t come to class sometimes just know I’m suffering. Is there any way RLP can help me to come out of this situation?”

This learner was referred to the SGBV Assistant for screening and was taken to the hospital for treatment, still ongoing. Although he has not yet totally healed, he has reported significant improvement because he underwent a successful operation.

Thirdly, EFA reinforces self-esteem of the survivors: Dr Chris Dolan with his co-researchers in their research titled “Torture and sexual violence in war and conflict: The Unmaking and remaking of subject of violence” (2019) argue that individuals subjected to torture and sexual violence can feel that their worth as human beings is destroyed.

English for Adults strengthens interactions and relationships between learners irrespective of their status as they come together for a common goal (learning English). Consequently, learners (survivors) create social relations with their fellow learners and join existing support groups like Men of Peace (MOP),[1] International Women Network,[2] and WAZE support group,[3] among others.

The continued interaction leads to increased social cohesion and creates a sense of belonging among survivors. This fosters the level of self-belief and worth among survivors. A female survivor from DRC who was externally referred to us from Tutapona revealed that;

“I came to know EFA through a counsellor from Tutapona who referred me here. I joined the classes and started learning English. However, I have been able to learn English and create friendships with my fellow learners. This has made me feel that I also belong somewhere despite the torture I went through and losing some of my family members while in DRC. Even through these relationships, I have been able to gain opportunities like learning to tailor for survival.”

In conclusion, EFA’s impact on the lives of forced migrants cannot be overstated. It has evidently empowered survivors of conflict-related sexual violence mainly through information sharing about available services and enabling them to speak out for themselves. This culminates into the restoration of hope amongst them. Therefore, stakeholders dealing in adult education activities, both governmental and non-governmental organizations should use these adult education platforms as a tool to sensitize about issues related to sexual violence.

Griven Barongo, Community English for Adult Facilitator, Refugee Law Project, School of Law, Makerere University, Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  Twitter: @BarongoGriven


[1] A support group of male survivors of CRSV established in Nakivale in 2013.

[2] A support group of women survivors established in Nakivale in 2018

[3] A support group of older persons, established in Nakivale in 2019

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