Prosecutor v Ongwen: Examining the Fate of Young Girls Abducted by the LRA

Case Summary: 

 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) – the world’s first permanent international tribunal set up to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes – is currently trying Dominic Ongwen, ex-commander of the Sinia Brigade of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA is a rebel group originally formed in Uganda.

 

Ongwen is on trial for the following crimes: 

 

War crimes: attack against the civilian population; murder and attempted murder; rape; sexual slavery; torture; cruel treatment; outrages upon personal dignity; destruction of property; pillaging; the conscription and use of children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities;     

 

Crimes against humanity: murder and attempted murder; torture; sexual slavery; rape; enslavement; forced marriage as an inhumane act; persecution; and other inhumane acts.[1]

 

Transcripts of the case can be found on the ICC’s website.[2]  This case is fascinating for many reasons, one of which is that it contains a strong focus on sexual and gender-based crimes. These crimes have been ignored or underprosecuted in the past. I will focus this post on how the ICC is bringing attention to the fate of young girls abducted by the LRA. These young girls are called “ting ting”, and their roles are explained in the March 21 and April 3, 2017 transcripts in the Ongwen trial. 

 

Defining A “Ting Ting” 

 

Girls have been abducted in large numbers by the LRA. Most girls serve as slaves, forced to fetch water and firewood, cook and clean. Older girls are “sexually enslaved as “wives” of commanders” while the younger girls are assigned to commanders as ting ting.3 These girls, whether they are fighting or cleaning, fear refusing their commanders’ orders: “You must work all of the time. The moment you refuse to work, they will kill you or beat you to death.”[3]

 

Analyzing What It Means to Be A “Ting Ting” 

 

Imbedded in the idea of a ting ting is a preconceived notion that a female is meant to be a housewife or, taken to the extreme, a domestic slave. To this day, gendered socio-cultural norms classify females as individuals who are meant to take care of their spouses and children, including feeding them and cleaning the house. 

 

It is horrifying, but not necessarily surprising, that the LRA would tap into these gendered sociocultural norms when creating their own social structures in northern Uganda. This decision by the LRA leadership to exploit young girls as ting ting highlights the performativity of gender. 

 

There are many useful thinkers on this subject, most notably Judith Butler, who offers us a more Continental reading of the notion of performativity. She describes performativity as “that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains.”[4] Gender and sex are two different things (also see Simone de Beauvoir), with gender being that which is created and reinforced by society or the law. Essentially, performativity can only occur and be enforced through the law or norms of a society. Gender is an act that has been rehearsed and people are actors who make this act a reality through repetition.  

 

Using a girl as a ting ting in the LRA is a means of enforcing – and performing - the gender norm that a woman is meant to be a housewife (or domestic slave) by virtue of her sex. Being a ting ting then becomes a quintessential aspect to the gender of women even though her sex does not dictate such. 

 

The Ongwen transcripts demonstrate that young girls captured and made into ting ting. In the Tuesday, December 6th, 2016 transcript, Witness P-0227 said that “these forced wives were given no choice. They were treated as spoils of war, awarded as prizes, without any more say in the matter than if they had been animals or inanimate objects." The witness goes on to talk about the consequences of escaping and looking at any man other than her “husband,” which includes severe beating. Due to pre-conceived norms about gender, women can either accept they seemingly natural role as a ting ting or suffer severe consequences.

 

[1] “Case Information Sheet: The Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen” <https://www.icccpi.int/uganda/ongwen/Documents/OngwenEng.pdf> 

 

[2] https://www.icc-cpi.int/Pages/crm-refinedt.aspx?case=ICC-02/04-01/15  3 Annette Weber, Abducted and Abused: Renewed Conflict in Northern Uganda:

https://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/uganda0703/uganda0703.pdf 

 

[3] Human Rights Watch interview with Janet M., Gulu, Uganda, February 9, 2003.

 

[4] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex.” 1993, New York: Routledge. pp. xii. 

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