Sex, Love and War

Two women in Uganda

About the project

This project examines the relationship between war, displacement, sexualities and intimate gendered relationships. It does so with the aim of improving knowledge and increasing public debate about sexualities and evolving gender norms in conflict-affected contexts.

Specifically, this project examines Northern Uganda and the Acholi people and the impact of 20 years of war between the Ugandan Government and the Lords Resistance Arms (LRA). Over 90% of the population in this region experienced displacement during this time. Alienation from the land combined with the impacts of ongoing violence caused massive, gendered disruptions to daily life including within intimate relationships and families.

One particular observation that prompts this research concerns the claim that there were no marriages taking place in the displacement camps. However, if no marriage was occurring for 20 years in a society where almost everything revolved around kinship – how do you then get access to land; how do you resolve conflicts; what rituals do you do if there is misfortune and suffering; how does governance and decision-making take place – if all of those things revolve around belonging to a particular kind of kinship group/lineage?

Project approach

This project uses long term ethnography, including participant observation, a random sample of interviews of nearly 200 women, and over 200 “love life history” interviews with people who were forcibly displaced or ex-combatants in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Love life histories are an ethnographic approach to documenting individual intimate life histories in depth. For example, inquiring if and how they talk about getting married; how they met their wife/husband; where people first learnt about sexuality; if people have had children, how they reflect on this, how they navigate their relationship with their kid(s) in this challenging context. These life histories were complemented by the use of radio and audio storytelling methods to engage participants in dialogues about their intimate lives in ways that could be broadcast to the wider community to inspire further discussion and action.

Key findings

The huge disruption to the ordering of life during conflict and displacement affects intimate relationships.

Displacement causes massive social and relational disruptions to daily life with far-reaching consequences in a society where intimate relationships, marriage, kinship and belonging are spatial and temporal orderings that interact with politics and governance. In prolonged displacements, the compounding impacts of this disruption become more salient and visible to those most directly affected by the conflict.

Life is tied to land, and land access and use happens through kinship ties that have been disrupted because of the prolonged time spent in camps.

For many people who were born in the camps or to parents who had not ‘married’ in traditional ways due to the circumstances of war their status in a family lineage is insecure. That means relational belonging and connection to land needs to be negotiated rather than simply claimed.  In an agrarian society where so much of life moves around the cycles of growing, the cycles of the season, and preparing the land and food there can be a loss of identity when ties and access to the land are contested, unstable, under threat or entirely cut.

The normal ways of finding partners and starting an intimate relationship were deeply impacted by the conflict.

In North Uganda, the ideal is that you should travel far away from your current home to find a wife, and in following patrilocal norms, the couple then settle in the man’s home or community. During the conflict and in the camps, these practices around finding a spouse were not possible.

Limited resources and restrictions on mobility meant there were ‘no new marriages’ in the displacement camps during the conflict.

Marriage involves a process over time and space that includes customary exchanges (e.g., cattle and other gifts and money) from the the man’s family to the woman’s that were not possible during the 20 years of conflict. For example, there were no cattle, so the exchanges that needed to take place in order to marry could not happen. This does not mean that people didn’t start living together, have sex or have children together. Rather it means that no new home was established, as these rituals of exchange could not happen, and the system that people hold very dear was eroded.

Marriage is not linear, it moves, shifts, and takes various shapes.

While formal or traditional marriages did not take place, ideas about marriage or what makes a home have begun to adapt in response to the context. The research reveals both evolving norms and contestations around these changes.  For example, in the absence or reduction in exchanges taking place relationships are less stable and can be more volatile.  At the same time, other things like having a child together, or constructing a house or farming together have become important ways to express an intention to live life together.

Despite the ruptures caused by conflict there is a continuity of many hierarchical social practices.

Despite the vast and sustained disruptions to social relations in North Uganda, certain hierarchical social norms remained resilient throughout the conflict. For example, gerontocracy (leadership and power held by the elders) and a patriarchal order (where preference is given to the men) have remained persistent and pervasive. Our assumption would be that conflict would have called these social norms into question in a much more profound way, but in reality, at least the ideal of them remains strong.

Some key social practices valued by women stemming from intimate relationships were preserved during and after displacement.

For example, the practice of burying umbilical cords of children to affirm the connection between the people and the land continued during the war largely by women in the communities. Despite the disruptions, this practice remained an important part of identity and continues to be practiced.

There is a continued loss and grief for an imagined ideal of life.

There is an imagined idea of Acholi life that is rooted in experience and memory, but the continued reverberations of the conflict make this something out of reach for most people. There is a noted discrepancy between what they imagine their lives should be like and what they are. So there is a process of mourning happening. Even if some of what has been lost is patriarchal, or violent there still needs to be a space for the loss and grief of that for there to be a reimagining of what life could look like in the aftermath of war and the experience of new freedoms.

Using radio as a method of communication brings new issues and discussions into public debate.

Radio enables a discussion around things that are not the norm, for example sexual experiences, and silences around different sexual experiences. It also means a greater engagement in these conversations from the public in discussions and conversations that would not typically be the norm in such a public way. For example, around how the conflict or Covid-19 changed peoples love lives, or if cultural chiefs should be regulating how much ‘brideprice’ or other customary exchanges to formalize relationships should be. This opened up different dynamics of what people think about different topics.

There was this labour that women in particular were putting into keeping these kind of ties to land and ancestry and lineage in place during the war.


Assumptions around intimate relationships and the words used to describe them need to be critically examined and contextually situated.

The way terms and concepts are used and interpreted, for example ‘marriage’, ‘wife’, ‘rape’, and ‘justice’, do not travel or translate in a simple way.  They need to be closely examined in conflict-affected context like North Uganda. We need to think about how social concepts are structuring social life and acknowledge that these categories and concepts are contested, incomplete and that contextual factors are required in order to understand their impacts.

School and curriculum reform are essential and needed.

Discourses in these spaces in the aftermath of conflict are key and an expansion of efforts to discuss social relations and intimate partnerships openly and critically is needed.

Work with radio to reach more people, bring voices together, and amplify those who are marginalised.

In the context of rural areas impacted by war, radio can be an effective and influential way of reaching people and discussing important communal issues. Facilitated conversations on the radio can also help build bridges across divides by bringing the rural and the urban, educated and uneducated, and men and women together to discuss key issues that affect them all. Radio is also useful because it can help amplify the voices of marginalised people who might not necessarily be the ones speaking up at community meetings or focus groups.