When Esther Khamitsya, dropped out of school in senior three to get married, her parents were unenthusiastic. One year down the road, she was forced to abort her first child to allow her return to school. However, she still did not return to school as she got pregnant again.
For Khamitsya getting married at 16 was a source of security and personal choice. "When I stayed home, my mother could hardly buy me petroleum jelly or even pads. It was my male friends at school who did. Besides, she [mother] always kept at church; so, I used not to find food when I returned from school," she said.
Although Khamitsya does not live with the father of her baby, she is happy because she is well-catered for. Khamitsya's thoughts are also shared by Fagil Mandy who believes some unfortunate pupils are better off in marriage than engaging in anti-social behaviour like prostitution and other crimes. "Different societies have different opportunities and so are families. There are some families that can afford fees for their children while others cannot; so, marriage for security could be the other option," Mandy said in a phone interview.
Whereas some might find Khamitsya's account 'understandable', some parents today are forcing their children into early marriages for material gain, something the law is against. Recently, Grace Awelo, 15, ran away from her parents' home in Namuwongo for fear of being forced to live with her forced husband. Her mother Peace Arwako and her elder siblings were against her returning to school after she had secured sponsorship for school fees from a children's NGO.
Police is hunting for Arwako, who thinks her daughter is of age and is not bright enough to further her education. Harriet Nadunga, a senior-two dropout from Busano secondary school in Mbale, is faced with the same dilemma. Nadunga was recently forced into marriage in exchange for Shs.600, 000 as fine to the man that got her pregnant. Hajji Hamis Kintu of Makindye in Kampala has refused to pay fees for all his girl-children and put them up for marriage.
According to one daughter, her father prefers educating boys because for the girls, however far they go in education, marriage is their destiny. Kintu's daughters, who dropped out at senior four, have resorted to selling straw-made-baskets at their home. Activists say that although barely reported, early marriages are a big problem. Hence, the NGO Girls Not Brides Uganda has partnered with other child-centred NGOs to tame this problem.
The alliance aims at mobilising member organisations to voice the needs of the girl-child. At a conference at Hotel Africana last month, the NGOs agreed to end child marriage to enable girls exploit their potential. The plan is to increase awareness of the impact of child marriages and effective solutions, increase policy attention and strengthen the coordination among civil society organisations.
Considering research done in the western districts of Bundibugyo, Kyenjojo and Kabarole, Moses Ntenga, the executive director of Joy for Children, said it was discovered that 67% of parents were marrying off their children in return for dowry. Other factors that contributed to child marriages included domestic violence, poor education, high levels of illiteracy, lack of definitive policy framework and lack of scholastic materials.
The United Nations population Fund report, presented by Ntenga, showed that Uganda ranked the 14th country in early and forced marriage prevalence rates in the world with 46% of women being married before 18. In recently-published global reviews, it has been documented that young women who get married early are more likely to experience early school departure, lower earning capacity, frequent child bearing, complications in pregnancy, high maternal mortality rate and increased risk to HIV infection.
A 2012 report by the NGO Joy for Children Uganda shows that women who marry before 18 do not have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether and when to marry and, in many cases, this single event shapes their entire adult lives. While the work done by different organisations to end child marriages is commendable, the evil continues to be wide-spread and is still socially accepted in many cultures in Uganda.
However, Kamanda Bataringaya, the minister of state for Primary Education, rubbishes these findings. Bataringaya believes there are several countries marrying off children as low as 16, and 46% for Uganda is an exaggeration. The minister emphasizes that there are legal frameworks to address such issues. He urged the NGOs to work with faith-based organisations and the central government to fight for children's justice.