March 22, 2012 at 6:34 pm , by Amelia Harnish
By now you’ve probably seen the Kony 2012 video that blew up this month. It reached more than 100 million views within a week, making it the fastest-spreading viral video ever (faster even than Lady Gaga’s video for “Bad Romance”). When I watched the video, I could see why it touched so many people: Who could be against a call-to-action to stop Joseph Kony, the leader of a rebel group famous for abducting children and turning them into soldiers and sex slaves?
But there have also been a lot of questions about the accuracy of the video and goals of Invisible Children, the organization that produced it. And earlier this week, the film’s creator was brought to a mental hospital after running around the streets of San Diego naked. Reports are blaming a psychotic break caused by all the scrutiny.
In other words, it’s turned into quite a circus. So when Health Director Julie Bain heard that an old friend, Conrad Mandsager, head of ChildVoice International, was going to be in town for a meeting at the United Nations, we invited him to stop by. While he was here, he talked to us about what’s going on in Uganda now, what ChildVoice is doing to help the most vulnerable victims recover, and how you (yes, another call-to-action!) can help.
LHJ: Why do you think Kony 2012 is causing such a stir?
CM: Raising awareness is great, and Invisible Children has certainly succeeded at that. But to really understand this conflict, you’ve got to go back in Uganda’s history more than 50 years. It’s very complicated. So it’s my sense that even if we took out Kony, which seems to be what Invisible Children wants, the problems would still be there.
Part of it is also that people in Africa are incensed that a group of Westerners would come in and oversimplify this. I just read an article by a teacher in Uganda who said, “I’ve got former child soldiers in my class and they wonder, Why is America making a hero out of Kony?” And that’s what Invisible Children’s approach is: Let’s make him a celebrity so everyone in the world knows who he is. But if you’ve been traumatized by this guy, you don’t respond well to that.
LHJ: We know that your mission with ChildVoice is to help former child soldiers. How did you get started, and what are you doing now?
CM: When my son and I got involved in 2006, we went to the refugee camps to interview the children who had been abducted and turned into soldiers. Every organization was focused on hunger, disease and so on, but we had it in our minds that we were going to focus on the children. Many of them escaped or were captured by the military and were being returned to their families. But they were stigmatized because of their past. There were a few organizations that were helping to try to reconnect them with their families and give them therapy. But because of the number of kids that needed help, they often couldn’t stay past 30 days. There wasn’t anyone providing long-term care and rehabilitation, and the girls were suffering the most. They had been abducted and fought as child soldiers, but they were also made sex slaves to the commanders. Many were pregnant or had children when they escaped. These girls weren’t accepted because of their past, and their children were viewed as devils because they were fathered by rebels. Many of them were turning to prostitution to survive, and many were being raped in the refugee camps just because of their vulnerability. No one was doing anything for them, and what really struck me was that they were so traumatized they couldn’t even speak about what happened to them. I was convinced that we had to do something.
We started ChildVoice in April of 2006. We took an old school that was at the heart of a massacre two years earlier and renovated it. We opened in 2007, and since then, we’ve had about 100 girls go through our year-long program. They’re certified in two vocational trades before they leave us. Now 93 percent of them are independent, living above the poverty line, running their own small businesses or contributing to their families.
LHJ: How can others get involved and make a difference?
CM: We’ve had relative peace in Uganda since 2007. But there is nobody in Northern Uganda who’s not been affected by this in some way. Go on our homepage and take action. Come work with us. One of our projects is this jewelry made out of paper beads. In addition to the center for the girls, we employ 42 women, most of them widows, who work for us making the beads. They make a fair wage, and then profits go back to support our program.
LHJ: And they’re beautiful! I especially love the colors of this set, left. And that’s me, pictured up top, modeling the samples Mandsager left with us. Leave a comment below and we’ll send a handmade necklace to the first five people.
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