Experience file Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

July 2006

Cattle rustling among the Pokot and karamojong in Uganda

The impact of gender relations on the conflict.

Keywords: Social sciences and peace | Internet and peace | | To analyse conflicts from a social point of view | | | | | | | |

Karamoja is located in the northeastern part of Uganda; it’s a 27,200 square kilometer area of semi-arid savannah, bush and mountains. To the east, its bordered by the Turkana (Kenya); to the north is the Sudan; to the west and south are Ugandan districts populated by Acholis, Itesots and Sabiny people.

The most important ecological feature of this region is its rainfall pattern. As a semi-arid area it gets short rains during April and a longer rainy season from June to early September; however, this pattern is not reliable and for many years the rains have been sparse, or fail altogether. Drought and hunger are a recurrent feature of life in Karamoja. The Karimojong have adapted to this often harsh environment by focusing much of their energy on their herds of livestock–principally cattle, but also goats and sheep, and, in a few areas, some camels. In addition to being a major source of dietary protein, these animals, especially cattle, represent wealth, both economically and symbolically.

During the long dry seasons the herdsmen leave their permanent settlements and move their cattle to where there is pasture and water, often crossing forcibly into the territory of neighboring regions of Teso and Sebei.

Competition for scarce resources, particularly water and pasture, and the high value placed on cattle have produced a culture of raiding and warfare within which men are noted for their bravery and their wealth.

Culturally, men marry with cattle and historically bride wealth \« prices\ » have been very high; Young men have a powerful incentive to establish their reputations and build their own herds through mounting raids on other pastoral groups (neighbouring districts).

In the decade of the 1970s-to date, these warrior herdsmen who had always fought with spears acquired modern firearms, which increased the momentum for raiding cows from the neighbours that is characterized by violence and loss of lives. The same culture is shared by the Turkanas, Pokots who launch violent attacks on the Karamojong and the neighbours in search of cows.

The government of Uganda has made attempts to disarm them and give them incentives and promised protection to the Karamojong. The disarmament was done through persuasion, however the government failed on its part, which left the Karamojong defenceless. Their rivals had a field day by taking away most of their cows, which has further aggravated their poverty status and thus they have armed themselves afresh and thus continuing to escalate the conflict.

The conflict has had great impact on the Karamoja community; there has been loss of lives especially of heads of families (men), thus creating women headed households.

There is basically no peaceful co-existance with other tribes, they live in a state of fear all the time and tension is written all over them. The rights of the people are generally being violated. For instance the right to life is being violated by the raiders who come to steal, kill and destroy people and property. The right to food and property is also violated in the process of raiding and this also has rendered the community to rely on relief food.

They live in temporary shelters, which they only put up hurriedly after the raids and these shelters are easy to destroy by fire.

There is little infrastructure like roads, schools and hospitals thus leaving the community, without the basics of life. There is therefore high illiteracy rates because some schools have been destroyed in the raids and so are diseases and eventual deaths due to poor health facilities.

The women have no privacy since they live in compounds where many people are living. There is the problem of water shortage that leaves the women especially to go for many days without bathing, since using water (for bathing) in the dry season is considered wastage. They only bathe a little more frequently in the wet season.

There are those who have also decided to run away to the city (Kampala) , and other small towns near them, and have turned into beggars by the streets.

Roles of men and women:

The Karamoja conflict has been going on for a long time, and as a result the roles of men and women have changed overtime. Traditionally men were charged with the responsibility of hunting, raiding/rustling animals, grazing cattle, while the women stayed home and took care of household responsibilities like building the huts, gardening (small-scale), preparing meals, and looking after the children.

With the persistence of the conflict, the men have been killed in the raids leaving a lot of widows to fend for themselves. The widows and other women have adopted activities like brewing local beer and selling it. The men’s roles also have changed overtime due to the reduction in number of their cows and the restrictions to cross over to other territories, they have now started building houses, and doing some gardening to supplement the relief food.

Changes in identities:

The conflict has not changed the identities of the men and women so much, but there are few instances where these identities of masculinity and femininity have faced some alterations for instance; men used to be the overall home providers but the effects of the conflict have rendered some to be dependent on women for virtually everything.

Currently men tend to assume that women should look after them thus reversing the roles. The men who can’t raid for their families are subjected to staying with their wife’s family because they are not men enough to take care of their families and this has an emotional effect on men who in turn loose self-esteem and respect in the community.

In most cases, if a woman is married to a man who does not have enough cows and cannot raid, the woman has a right to leave him and go and marry someone-else considered stable. This has changed marriage practices by giving the women more power and freedom to choose a marriage partner who best suits their needs, yet this was not the practice.

Impact on relationship:

There are many cases of unstable marriages due to raids due to the fact that the woman has the power to decide on whom to marry depending on the herds of cattle he has. In case the man goes poor the woman leaves him for someone better.

There is however still a strong culture of keeping secrets by women about the whereabouts of the men; especially when the men are on any mission out of the community or their compounds. This has made them into a closely-knit community.


Pastoralist societies in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda) face more demands on their way of life than at any previous time. Population growth, loss of herding lands to farmers, ranchers, game parks, and urban growth, increased commoditization of the livestock economy, out-migration by poor pastoralists, and dislocations brought about by drought, famine, and civil war are increasing throughout the region. These problems are intensified as international development programs encourage privatization and individuation of formerly communally held resources. The author points out the changes in roles that have taken place as a result of above mentioned structural circumstances. She further points out how these changes in roles have led to changes in marriage practices for women, problems of self-esteem for men and how these have led to changes in their relationship.


  • The author of the file is : Asenath Ninsiima.