At the entrance to a round mud and elephant-grass hut in rural northern Uganda, Rose Lamwaka, 58, pauses and looks up at the ceiling of her new dwelling as if she cannot quite believe it is really there.
After her old home was burned down in a fire, a group of 15 local women built Lamwaka a new house on land lent to her by an uncle — a feat almost unheard of a generation ago before the conflict here, when men were the undisputed household heads.
“This hut was thatched with dry grass by my children, while the rest was done by women members in the group,” Lamwaka, a single mother, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “What my group has done for me is an act of kindness. They have made me happy.”
The female master builders who made Lamwaka’s home — and gave her food, cooking utensils and bed sheets when her old one was destroyed — started working together about a decade ago as they struggled to recover from almost 20 years of war.
The women survived rape, abuse, forced labor and other horrors during an insurgency waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), when the army fought rebels notorious for cutting off people’s body parts and abducting children into their ranks.
In a war that ripped northern Uganda apart, some 2 million people — almost the entire population of the region — were forced into camps. The LRA was ousted from Uganda in 2005, retreating into South Sudan and neighboring states.
Today, the 15 women builders live in neighboring villages in Paicho sub-county, some 350 km (217 miles) north of the capital, Kampala.
They support one another as a team, running a shared savings and loans scheme, as well as home-building projects.
“These days, women can build houses so well on their own,” said Paska Akello, the group’s chair, another single mother who was kidnapped by the LRA when she was pregnant.
The idea to build homes came from Agnes Igoye, a women’s rights advocate who works as Uganda’s deputy national coordinator for the prevention of human trafficking.
As a child, the conflict forced Igoye and her family to flee their home, but in 2013 she returned to northern Uganda to help other victims of war.
She heard about a woman who had been kicked out of her home by relatives because her husband had been abducted and forced to become an LRA rebel.
“She had three daughters — they would look for a place to sleep every night,” Igoye said. “I had never built a house in my life … But I said that we, as women, have to do something about it.”
She persuaded the group, which had already formed, to venture into construction.
Northern Uganda is a society where gender roles are strongly defined, said Ryan O’Byrne, a research fellow with the London School of Economics, based in the region.
While some women lost their husbands in the conflict, others got divorced or were simply abandoned. The men who are around are often unhelpful, spending their time drinking alcohol to soothe widespread post-war trauma, said Akello.
Nowadays, material hardship and social change brought by the war are pushing women to try less traditional roles and trades.
They have stepped up to run homes and their own businesses, often because they have no other choice, Akello said.
Northern Uganda, one of the country’s most marginalized areas, is plagued by unemployment, low levels of economic development and high rates of poverty.
Lack of land rights for women is another major problem, as access to land is usually passed down through the male line in Acholi culture. Women traditionally gain the right to live on, and farm, land owned by their fathers and husbands.
Amid the conflict, which disrupted family units, many women lost the ability to access land or had it taken off them, noted O’Byrne.
In peacetime, women across northern Uganda are getting together to protect their interests.
Further west of Paicho, a group of about 40 women — many of whom were abducted by the LRA, raped and then shunned by their families for returning with so-called “rebel babies” — set up their own community about seven years ago in Pida village.
They called it Waroco Kwowa, which means “Let us rebuild our lives” in the Acholi language.
The former “rebel wives” and other women who have joined them teach tailoring, craft-making, farming and business skills to a new generation of teen mothers in surrounding areas.
Uganda has banned child marriage, but nearly one in every two girls is still wed before the age of 18, according to the charity Girls Not Brides.
“A girl in a village is likely to get pregnant and get married at 14 or 15,” said Annette Apiyo, one of the teachers, who was kidnapped aged six and forced to marry a rebel at 13.
While the government has built new roads and upgraded infrastructure since the conflict ended, Ugandan official Igoye said many people lack entrepreneurial know-how and drive after years of reliance on wartime aid.
Helping locals fend for themselves is the best way forward, she added.
The female builders are already planning their next project — farming the land of a member who is too weak to take advantage of the planting season.
“We need to help so that she can have a good harvest,” said Lamwaka, as she began settling into her new home.
Meanwhile, in the Waroco Kwowa community, some men have applied to join but only five were accepted who offer skills the women lack, Apiyo said.
In Paicho, the builders’ group admitted one man because he could read and write.
But he was fired when he ran off with 100,000 shillings ($27), after borrowing money he could not pay back.
“We don’t need men because they can’t be trusted,” said Akello, the group chair, to laughter from her friends.
($1 = 3,712.0000 Ugandan shillings)