Combining traditional and Western healing techniques to reintegrate child soldiers into their former communities

Reconstruindo a Esperança (Rebuilding Hope), in Mozambique, combined traditional healing and Western psychology to reintegrate former child soldiers. Thousands of children were used as soldiers by both sides in Mozambique’s devastating civil war. Lucrecia Wamba, a psychologist with Rebuilding Hope, states that “child sol­diers lived through unimaginable horrors and they processed these experiences through the lens of the culture and belief systems of their communities. Their healing necessarily had to be processed through the same lens, in order to achieve both individual rehabilitation and community reintegration.” The organization recognized that neither traditional healing methods nor individualized Western psychology alone would be sufficient to address the needs of the children or the community.

Rebuilding Hope first conducted a survey to identify communities that were facing problems with returning child soldiers and to identify community resources. Recognizing that traditional healers are often the first people community members approach when they need help, Rebuilding Hope psychologists enlisted the support of community leaders to build relationships with the healers.

In the community, psychologists examined the role traditional healing processes were playing in promoting reconciliation and reintegration and approached families to see what the children needed. At first, families were reluctant to trust the outsiders, fearing that their children would be taken from them yet again. The psychologists also went to local leaders, describing the effects of trauma and asking if they were seeing particular problems among the returning child soldiers and were able to address these problems. When leaders acknowledged that these problems were continuing, the psychologists offered to work collaboratively with the traditional healers.

Local leaders accompanied the psychologists on visits to healers to encourage cooperation. Psychologists and healers realized that their approaches could complement each other. To build trust within the community, Re­building Hope also needed to work with the communities to identify material priorities and gain material assis­tance, connecting the community to resources such as housing, education and agricultural tools.

The result was an integrated approach to healing in which healers and psychologists built a collaborative relation­ship, referring children to one another to achieve the best results possible.

For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

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What we can learn from this tactic: 

Child soldiers are victims, but often abusers as well. Some have been forced to commit horrendous crimes, sometimes against their own communities and families. This not only causes terrible psychological damage, but can make it exceedingly difficult for their families and communities to accept them back. In Mozambique, a group has used a tactic that requires a great deal of collaboration and trust among the child soldiers, the community and the traditional leaders and healers, and that supports the overall healing process by helping communities reintegrate their children back into community life.

Former child soldiers present communities with complex issues that are, sadly, not unique to Mozambique. This tactic may be applicable in other communities working to reintegrate survivors of war, communities in which leaders and traditional healers can play significant roles and in which the abused and the abuser need to live together. To heal, a community must overcome the assumption that perpetrators of abuse are evil and cannot be reintegrated into society in any positive or meaningful way. Scarce resources can make it difficult to implement this tactic, particularly if community members feel that such resources would be better used to help victims rather than those who have perpetrated abuses.