UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Early childhood before, during and after war and displacement in northern Uganda McElroy, Theresa


Background: Research from numerous fields of science is providing strong evidence demonstrating that the conditions young children live within mould their health and developmental trajectories. While science and policy call for nurturing environments to preserve developmental potential, the current global reality is that war and civil unrest displace millions of children from their homes, desecrating their social supports and environments. Furthermore, little research has drawn attention to the experience of the youngest children during and after war. Objective: To holistically document the environments of young children (0 to 3 years) before, during and after a 20-year war and mass internal displacement in northern Uganda in order to deepen current understandings, address research gaps and inform interventions. Methods: This applied ethnography used purposive sampling in three sites of the Amuru District over a one-year period. Interviews, focus groups, longitudinal case studies, participant observation, document review, and photo documentation with young children, caregivers (siblings, parents, and others) and community leaders explored multiple views on early childhood health and development. Results: War and displacement seriously thwarted caregivers from employing their extensive knowledge and traditional care practices that protected and nurtured their young children in rural agrarian communities. Young children were exposed to numerous, cumulative factors that previous research has documented as risks to well-being and long-term developmental potential. This risk persisted well into post-conflict resettlement. However, despite dire conditions, there were also factors that acted to protect children and examples of children’s healthy functioning. Conclusions: Disrupted social structures and environments appear to influence young children's health and developmental futures in all phases of war, displacement and resettlement. Results suggest that the efforts by state and the international community to mitigate risk and promote positive development for vulnerable young children were insufficient and incommensurate with the degree of evidence supporting the critical importance of the early years. Future efforts must build on local culture and address the most relevant and pressing needs of children in close collaboration with families and communities. The rebuilding of healthy, peaceful societies depends upon the preservation of the immense human capital and boundless potential within children.

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