Last week, apprehensive children across Uganda received the results of a set of exams pivotal to their progress through the education system – the Primary Leaving Exams. However, despite being globally recognised as having been robbed of the most basic human rights, one group of children did not sit their exams this year. They are the hundreds of thousands of child-brides living in Uganda today.
In a 2013 article on the issue of child-marriage, New Vision reported that almost 2 million Ugandan minors have been forced or lured into marriage – resulting in 46% of girls under 18 being married nationwide. This statistic is staggering for a country with a constitution and other legislation clearly spelling out the age of consent. Why, then, do the girls of Uganda grow up facing an almost 1 in 2 chance that their wedding day will fall before their 18th birthday? An almost 1 in 2 chance that it will be one of the most important and simultaneously one of the most devastating days of their lives?
In primary school offices around Manafwa, an area in the east where female enrollment rates are among the lowest in the country, handwritten posters urge “Parents, Teachers, Promote the girl child”. They set out lists of ways in which a parent or teacher might try to do so – suggestions such as “avoid early marriages” or “let children stay in school”. Despite this vague and meager advice, the enrollment statistics leave no room for doubt; girl children are being neither promoted nor protected. The poster is not enough.
It is in rural parts of the country that drop outs occur most frequently. Michael, the headmaster of a primary school in the heart of the region believes that this is due, in part, to a widespread assumption that if a girl has reached puberty then she is ‘ready’ for marriage. He tells me that combatting such views in the community is one of the greatest challenges he faces and that this school year alone he has seen four female students leave to get married. In a voice heavy with concern he asks me what he can do if a girl stops turning up to school but her parents deny that she has been married. It is easy to tell when they are lying, he says, because the family has at the same time gained a number of cows.
Financial implications of marriage are crucial to understanding the problem. A colleague of mine tries her best to explain. She tells me that many families see a daughter as an ‘asset’ to the family – I feel a quick rush of optimism before realising that she is using the financial sense of the word. When I ask her whether this was the case in her own family, she says that in many cities and larger towns attitudes have changed and are still changing. Sylvia herself has no plans to marry for another 2-3 years, and she has no doubt that when the time comes her choice of husband will be her own to make.
Unfortunately, it remains all too obvious that this reality is not one shared nationwide. Girls as young as 12 or 13 are forced into marriages that cut them off from their families, social networks and educational opportunities. These girls are being failed by their parents and teachers, whose responsibility it is to protect them from harm, but also by the fundamental legal systems of their country.
If the future is going to be a safer one for the girls of Uganda, urgent legal reform is required. Awareness of the risks of child marriage needs to be spread to even the most rural of areas and to people of all generations – after all, it’s not much use educating girls on their right to safety and education if it is their parents who have all the choice in their lives. In the rest of the world, it is the urgency that must be conveyed. Organisations and campaigns such as Girls Not Brides and Too Young To Wed are taking critical steps towards greater global awareness, but there is still much that needs to be done for a problem so vast. Child marriage in Uganda cannot improve slowly, or gradually, or little by little. It must be addressed now, and it must be addressed whole-heartedly, if there is to be any future at all for the girls of the country.