In Uganda, men still treat women like slaves. Women demand no respect. Most of them are unable to support themselves because of a lack of job skills and the inequalities they face. They are regularly assaulted and even raped.
When three area women heard about the atrocities occurring in the East African country, they decided to do what they could to help.
In August, Nina Cox, an obstetrics nurse at Marshalltown Medical & Surgical Center, began considering a mission trip to Uganda. She wanted to help, but she didn't know how to make it happen.
Julie Hartman, left, Nina Cox, center, and Jody Shea, right, are shown here in this photo. The three women are raising money to go on a mission trip to Uganda in January to help women affected by political upheaval.
"I have always wanted to do something like this," she told Julie Hartman, who works security at the hospital.
Having been on mission trips before, most recently to Haiti, Hartman quickly jumped on board. Later, despite her ailing health, Hartman's friend Jody Shea, a paramedic, joined the duo.
But getting to Uganda wouldn't prove as easy as making the decision. Getting there has proved to be a journey in itself. They needed to raise roughly $4,500 each for the trip not to mention get the hospital's approval to take the time off.
Although Uganda is one of Africa's most lush and fertile countries, generations of civil war between the Ugandan government and Lord's Resistance Army rebels, led by Joseph Kony, has left it stagnant.
During the worst of the fighting - eight to 12 years ago - the government closed most schools and clinics as it shuffled many Northern Ugandans into refugee camps to protect them from LRA aggression.
The International Criminal Court has brought human rights violations, including the recruitment of children into his army, against Kony, and the Ugandan government captured him earlier this year.
But Kony escaped, and the warlord still eludes justice. U.S. military officials have said his army has dwindled from several thousand soldiers to a few hundred hiding somewhere in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Meanwhile, despite the war having calmed to a simmer, Uganda is still in turmoil. War has left the country torn - steeped in strife, much of its citizenry without adequate healthcare or education.
In May 2004, the village of Lukodi played host to a Lord's Resistance Army massacre that killed several dozen civilians despite government guards stationed there.
Less than two years later, Conrad and Neil Mandsager, who graduated from Marshalltown high school in the later 70s, set up a clinic in the village. In 2006, Conrad established ChildVoice, a non-profit organization with the goal of helping mend the country by empowering the county's citizenry with the tools to sustain themselves.
Conrad, the son of a retired surgeon who used to work at MMSC, and his brother Neil, a perinatalogist, spent a portion of their youth in Cameroon, Africa. Neil was born there. So, Africa - its customs, ideals and people - is not as foreign to them as it is to most Westerners.
But Neil didn't see it coming when his brother approached him about becoming involved with ChildVoice. He recalls sitting at his desk at the Perinatal Center of Iowa in Des Moines where he is the medical director. The phone rang. It was Conrad.
Although the two occasionally talked, they weren't exactly close, Neil says. So, it was quite peculiar for Conrad to call unexpectedly in the middle of the day. He told Neil about ChildVoice and the situation in Uganda.
Conrad's description of the situation floored Neil, especially because he knew nothing about the two decades of violence in the region.
"Which is sad," Neil says.
He was in, and things began to take off.
ChildVoice establishes centers staffed with people who teach the town's woman job skills including tailoring, farming, baking and hairstyling. The organization also used to operate a medical clinic, but as the region stabilized, the Mandsagers returned control of the clinic to the government.
Economic incentive helps to soften some of the gender-based discrimination, Neil says.
"Men aren't stupid," he says. "If a woman is able to bring in money, he is going to treat her differently I don't know if we are changing the culture, but we are changing the independent dynamic of these girls."
Serendipity illuminated the Mandsagers efforts for Julie, Nina and Jody, giving them the local connection they needed to push their mission trip forward. Hospital administrators agreed to let them go to Uganda.
The trip, led by Neil, will see 12 missionaries spending two weeks, among other things, helping build the new campus located near the site of old center, which was housed in an abandoned school. The new location will be able to accommodate twice as many women.
Both Jody and Julie have been on mission trips before. The day the women are set to leave for Uganda, Jan. 6, will mark five years to the day that Jody left for Costa Rica where she spent five days helping women in a clinic. Julie spent time in Haiti.
"Some people pray on their knees," Julie says. "I am one of those people who prays on her boots it doesn't bother me to go toward what most people run away from."
Julie and Jody say those previous missions give them perspective. Nina was relieved when she discovered they would be staying in a hotel, Jody says.
"Don't be disappointed if we get there and things change," she told her. "You kind of have to go with the flow."
Both Jody and Julie say their strengths lie in their ability to compartmentalize. They try not to let dicey circumstances rattle them. Julie is a volunteer firefighter and used to be a cop. As a paramedic, Jody too has seen her share of despair. Her mother died of cancer.
They both say they hope they can be a shoulder to lean on for Nina, who they both characterize as "very sensitive and caring."
"The women are women who have brutalized and raped," Nina says. "That really touched me."
Uganda is a primarily a Christian nation. So, the mission's goal - ChildVoice's goal - is not to convert the citizenry to Christianity.
Neil says many Ugandans also mix elements of native faiths with Christianity, but he says the goal is not to impose Western thought or ideology onto their culture. It's to make the girls self-sufficient. ChildVoice employs native Ugandans to work in the center.
"Our No. 1 mission is to bring love to these girls," Nina says. "And that is, in itself, the gospel."
Some 100 girls have gone through ChildVoice's program; Neil says follow up interviews show that 98 of them have become self-sufficient. Missionaries' role is not to act as evangelicals. Neil characterizes ChildVoice as more of a social justice program.
That's just fine by Julie. She says the idea of trying to Americanize these women is offensive to her, and it's something she wouldn't dare do. Julie, Nina and Jody say they view the trip as an opportunity to show the Ugandan women they are not alone in the world.
"Here is a group of people who traveled 8,200 miles just to hug you," Julie, a mother of four, plans to tell the Ugandan women at the center. "We haven't forgotten about you."
For Jody, part of that love is in the simple act of holding babies. When she heard that part of her job was to hold babies, she was elated. During her downtime at work, she says the best place to find her is in the nursery.
Jody has been a paramedic for 17 years. God gave her the power to heal, she says, and she plans to use it as God intended. God only gives everyone a certain amount of days on Earth, she says. It's up to her how she spends those days. She plans to live them to the fullest.
"I just have to hope I have touched one life in that time," she says.
The women each need to raise roughly $4,500 to cover the cost of their travel, vaccinations, food and other expenses. So far, the trio has gathered about half the money, but time is running out. They hope to have the remaining funds by Christmas.
To raise the remaining money, the women will display photos of the pets of those who make a $5 donation on a tree at Marshall Town Center during the holiday season.
To get your pet displayed on the tree, send a picture of your pet to Nina Cox: 209 E. Webster St., Marshalltown Iowa, 50158, or to make a tax-deducible donation to the mission trip, send a check to Lutheran Church of Hope, 925 Jordan Creek Parkway West Des Moines, Iowa 50266, and note the women's names in the memo line. If the women are unable to go, the money will fund a later mission trip.