Throughout the world, marriage is regarded as a moment of celebration and a milestone in adult life. Sadly, as this story shows, the practice of early marriage gives no such cause for celebration as many girls are losing out on their education in Kabarole district, Uganda.
Many young girls are suffering due to early marriage. The imposition of a marriage partner upon a child means a girl’s childhood is cut short and their fundamental rights such as education are compromised.
Many child wives in Uganda, who should be in school or playing, are living in near slave-like conditions in the homes of their in-laws.
Uganda is one of the countries with the highest early and forced marriage prevalence rates in the world.
In Kabarole district, 20 primary pupils have been married off in a period of three months. These include three pupils from Kibyo Primary School, five from Mahyoro Primary School, five from Bunyangabu PS and seven from Katebwa SDA primary school. The situation was brought to the attention of the district’s school administration which summoned the parents to explain their actions but all failed to turn up.
Patrick Rwakaikara, the District Education Officer, said: “The practice is common in the mountainous areas, mainly occupied by the Bakonjo. They still believe in their traditional beliefs of marrying off young girls –they pay dowry of between three to 12 goats – which is destroying their education. Early marriage inevitably denies children of school age their right to the education which they need for their personal development. This should stop.”
Druscilar Biira, the headmistress Mahyoro PS, says that the school administration got concerned when the five girls didn’t report to school at the beginning of the term. She says that when they enquired they were told that they had been married off.
“We have made attempts to get the girls back to the school, but there hasn’t been any success because the parents aren’t cooperative. When the school authorities summoned the parents of the five girls for a meeting, they didn’t attend” Biira said.
According to Biira, in a bid to prevent other girls in the school from being married at an early age, the school administration is carrying out sensitization for parents about the dangers of early marriages.
“We have dedicated every Wednesday, to sensitizing and educating our people on the dangers of early marriages this is done by female teachers who also talk to the girls because some parents may not have the time to talk to the girls” Biira said.
At Kibyo Primary School, two girls were married off last month. Head teacher Patrick Agaba says that, when teachers went to the homes of the girls to demand that they return to school, the parents threatened to hurt the teachers.
Kenneth Bajenja, the Community Development Officer in Karangura, blames the parents for not being cooperative and being negligent. He adds that whenever parents are called to attend meetings to discuss the issue they shun them.
Bajenja notes that men in Karangura believe that they are entitled to marry the young girls as a result of entering into agreements with their parents to whom they pay the bride price.
“One man amused me when he was summoned by the school and warned of being arrested but instead replied that he won’t be arrested since he signed an agreement with the parents to marry the girl and paid a dowry of three goats,” Bajenja said.
The married off girls are aged between 12 and 14 years and were in classes Primary Five and Seven. They have dropped out of school since this term begun.
The men are said to be paying three to 12 goats to a girls parents as dowry.
Bajenja says the sub county is planning to set up a by-law in order to curb parents who marry off their daughters and those who don’t take their children to school.
However, the number and cases of married off girls could be higher than the one reported since many unregistered cases go unnoticed.
Other areas such as Kasese, Kigezi and northern parts of Uganda have also been grappling with early marriages. However, the community seems to be moving slowly to curb the practice there as many are unaware of its dangers, which is posing a challenge to the government.
Children and teenagers married below the legal minimum age become statistically invisible as ‘children’. Thus, in the eyes of the law, an adult male who has sex with a girl of 12 or 13 outside marriage may be regarded as a criminal while the same act within marriage is condoned.
Experts say early marriage is a violation of human rights. The right to free and full consent to a marriage is recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in many subsequent human rights instruments – consent that cannot be ‘free and full’ when at least one partner is very immature.
Uganda is one of the countries with the highest early and forced marriage. Around 46 per cent of all women are married by the age of 18, according to UNICEF 2011 figures despite the law setting 18 as the legal age of marriage.
The timing of marriage for females has not varied for more than 50 years according to the 2009 inter-agency participatory assessment – Child Protection Sub-Cluster in Uganda.
Girls aged 10 to 14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20 to 24; while girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die. Many, if not most, of these deaths take place within marriage.