Hoima — It is a drizzling morning on the streets of Hoima town in mid-western Uganda. While driving from home to work, I meet a teenager at a junction of Hoima Main Street and Persy road. As school going children rush to school, 13-year old Jane is walking in a drizzle carrying a basket containing yellow bananas.
She approaches the front passenger side of the car on a lowered windscreen.
"Uncle, please buy a bunch bananas from me. A bunch goes for Shs 3,000" Jane tells me with a smile after introducing herself.
She explains how the income she earns from the sale of bananas is the main source of income at her impoverished home.
"My parents are peasants with barely any source of income. What I earn is the income of the home," she says.
As other children wake up in the morning to go to school, Jane walks on bare feet from home in Kyabigambire subcounty, about 12 kilometres to Hoima town where she hawks bananas to meet the basic needs of his home.
Jane says much as she loves going to school, her parents insist that she first concentrates of attaining income for the home and school time will come later.
Alarming dropout rate
There are many children in this (Kyabigambire) subcounty who have dropped out of school inorder to engage in petty trade, get employed as maids while others stay at home helping their parents in domestic chores, the Kyabigambire subcounty chairperson Mr Alex Mwesigwa, confesses.
There are also cases where the teaching and learning environment forces children, especially girls to drop of school, he says.
A recent study that was conducted by Uganda Women's Effort to save Orphans (UWESO) in partnership with Hoima district discovered over 4,800 children of school going age had dropped out of school or absconded from classes and were instead involved in child labour, says Mr Tony Ayesiga, the Hoima district Labour officer.
The children were found working in bars, shops, tea, sugar cane and tobacco farms before the district authorities teamed up with Police to force them back in school and apprehend perpetrators, he added.
Section 32 of Uganda's Employment Act states that a child under 12 years old shall not be employed in any undertaking; a child under 14 years shall be employed to do light work under supervision, as long as it does not affect their education. But authorities confirm that child labour remains rampant despite laws that prohibit the vice.
The ministry of Gender, labour and social development has installed a free helpline in the district Probation's office to help members of the public whistle blow cases of school drop outs, child labour and other related child abuse cases.
Hoima district has over 17,500 girls who are enrolled in schools, the district Senior Education Officer Mr Godfrey Sserwanja says.
It is believed that 5-8% of the enrolled girls were dropping out of school annual before we stepped up interventions to reverse the trend, he adds.
Hoima district council passed the school going age children ordinance in 2014 whose purpose is to enforce school attendance, define the roles of stakeholders in the education sector and prohibit school going children from dropping out of school.
The ordinance slaps a penalty of 2 currency points, an equivalent of Shs 40,000 or imprisonment of not less than six months for anyone found guilty of forcing a child out of school.
Since the ordinance came into effect, about 20 people have been arrested and convicted, Sserwanja says.
As more children drop out of school, the ordinance has largely remained shelved. Many perpetrators forcing children out of school have remained unpunished.
Whereas we have a large number of children dropping out of school, the most affected are girls, says Mr Mulindambura Mugenyi, the Hoima district secretary of education and sports.
Some parents marry off their underage daughters inorder to receive dowry which is often in form of money, cows and properties that are usually delivered by the family of the prospective husband, Mugenyi says.
There are also parents especially in the fishing communities that either forces their children to drop out of school or miss classes inorder for them to engage in fishing or selling fish at markets that are at various landing sites, says Mulindambura who is also the Kigorobya subcounty district councilor.
He says the district is determined to penalize such parents and curb the vice.
"We are currently sensitizing the communities about the importance of the girl child education because some communities perceive girls to be having lesser value than their male children," he says.
Bunyoro region just like many parts of Uganda is a highly patriarchal society that gives preferential consideration to males than females especially during inheritance when family heads pass on.
Male parents commonly pass on overall powers of inheritance to their sons except in few instances where females are considered.
It is because when girls are married off, culturally they are considered to be more of members of the family of their husbands than members of families where they were born, explains Haj Bruhan Kyakuhaire, a retired head teacher who is currently the special assistant for culture in Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom, one of Uganda's cultural institutions.
"But the King is moving with modernity. Culture is not static. We are now encouraging parents to give equal opportunities to their children to access education, basic necessities, inheritance and other benefits. We are campaigning for the girl child because for a long time, they (girls) have been denied opportunities and marginalized," he says.
It is on this background that the Queen of Bunyoro Kitara Omugo Margret Karunga Adyeri has organized an inaugural Netball tournament in Bunyoro region which she will use to senstise communities about the importance of girl child education, says Princess Daphine Kabatalesa, a King's daughter and a liaison for the Queen's office.
She says many girls in Bunyoro region are dropping out of school because some parents are yet to appreciate their education.
"The Queen is using her Royal influence and as a role model to mobilise school drop outs to return to school and those in school to stay there until they complete their education cycle" says Kabatalesa, a University graduate who is mobilizing school children in Bunyoro region to keep in school until they complete tertiary education.
Significance of girl child education
Education is a weapon communities can use to transform the world, make innovations and improve social-economic welfare of the people yet many girls are denied the opportunity to attend school. Even those attending school under the Government's Universal Primary Education (UPE) programme have challenges of paying functional fees that are instituted in some schools.
Many girls drop out of school because they are not groomed and taught about sexual reproductive health including the details on menstruation matters and the challenges that come with onset on periods, explains Ms Hope Nankunda, the Executive Director of Raising Teenagers Uganda, a girl child advocacy organisation.
"We know that many girls have been stopped to continue with school just because they have seen their first (menstruation) period. This is very wrong and must be addressed with urgency. Menstruation is normal and natural and therefore must be treated as such. No Girl should miss or drop out of school just because she was born female," says Ms Nankunda who is also the Central Regional Coordinator for the Girls Not Brides Uganda project that decompaigns marrying off underage girls.
Her NGO has introduced clubs in schools that provide a platform for young girls to openly share their challenges and receive guidance in a supervised setting.
"As a result we have helped many girls to speak out about issues affecting them and they are able to stay focused on their education. We are also working closely with parents and communities leaders so that they part of the campaign to Keep Girls in School," Ms Nankunda says.
The Hoima Municipal Council deputy Mayor Mr Nelson Jimmex Businge observes that much as under the UPE and University Secondary Education (USE) Programmes, Government schools do not charge tuition fees on learners, parents complain that the cost of uniforms, guard fees, transport, lunch and the opportunity cost of losing their daughters' labour are hardly worth the poor learning outcomes they see.
"Students can only take the primary school completion exam twice. If they fail, they are ineligible to continue in public education. When girls fail examinations, many parents say that they have little choice but to look for a suitor to marry off their daughter," Mr Businge who is also the Hoima Municipality secretary of Education and Health, says.
He said that his office has received cases where once a girl accidentally conceives, she is expelled from school.
"Husbands show little interest in supporting their adolescent wife's education especially if they must enroll in a private school. This is an expense that they often do not wish to incur" Businge says.
He suggests that Government should put in place stringent punishments that will compel parents to enroll and keep their children in school which will in turn delay marriage and childbearing which are pushing girls out of school.
He proposes that Government should reintroduce hand work activities in schools which will give pupils skills that will employ them if their formal education fails.
"Vocational skills training from Primary schools should be introduced to help these girls acquire skills that can sustain them or even keep them busy during holidays hence protecting them from men who target them with small financial inducements," Mr Businge says.
As a contribution to curb the rampant high school dropout rate of girls, Think Humanity, an international charity organization opened up an education project in Bunyoro region in 2012 that has so far benefited over 200 girls.
The Think Humanity Girls' Hostel (THGH) Program aims to empower and educate young women to create a better future for themselves and their communities.
The organization gives scholarships, care, protection and necessities to under privileged girls from Kyangwali Refugee Camp who were displaced by war in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, Burundi and from different areas in Uganda.
According to Ms Beth Heckel, the Think Humanity founder and Chief Executive officer, forced child marriages, schools fees, sexual violence and lack of sanitary facilities are driving many girls out of school.
"However, If we can keep girls in school beyond grade seven, they are more likely to marry four years later, less likely to die in pregnancy/childbirth, have an average of 2.2 fewer children, have healthier children and more likely to send their children to school," she says.
Education is the ladder out of poverty, Ms Heckel says, If you educate a girl, you change the entire dynamic of a household, a community and a region.
Fight against child labour
Through the Realise project, the Elimination of Child labour in Tobacco growing (ECLT) Foundation has worked with various stakeholders in Hoima district to ensure that families send their children to school and not to work in the crop fields.
From 2013 to 2017, ECLT worked with our implementing partners, UWESO, to reach children from over 18,000 households in the Hoima district with:
ECLT which has for the last 13 years invested over $ 3 million to fight child labour in Uganda, the organization has built classrooms, provided scholastic materials, built toilets and other sanitary facilities in selected schools inorder to create a conducive learning and teaching environment that attracts and retains children in school.
"Working closely with Hoima district, Uganda Women's Effort to save Orphans (UWESO), our projects have directly reached over 110,000 children, farmers and families in areas where tobacco is grown since 2013. Building on successes, ECLT and UWESO launched a project extension, aiming to support another 38,800 children and over 100,000 adults by 2021 in the Hoima and Kikuube districts" says Mr Eddie Wambewo, a consultant at ECLT foundation's Hoima office.
According to Mr Wambewo, Children who were previously involved in child labour are being supported to enroll in schools or attaining job skills training.
Since 2013, the REALISE project identified and supported over 5,900 children from 6 to 18 years-old to get out of child labour and into school or training. 240 young people completed job skills training to help them start businesses and find decent work.
In doing so, Wambewo says children and young people will have access to decent job markets, breaking the cycle of poverty and child labour.
When families have stable, diversified incomes, parents are able to send their children to school, rather than to help on the family farm, he says.
According to the 2019 Save the Children's Global Childhood report, millions of children in Uganda are still out of school, go to bed hungry, cannot access adequate healthcare, and suffer from child marriage and teen pregnancy.
The report was published as Save the Children marks its centenary. The organisation was founded 100 years ago in 1919. The independent child rights organization works in more than 120 countries. It has worked in Uganda since 1959.
The report ranked 176 countries on children's access to essential services and protection from harmful practices.
According to the findings, Uganda has fallen six places in the rankings since last year and is now listed 136th out of 176 countries.
While school enrollment has increased since the introduction of Universal Primary Education, almost one in four Ugandan children are still out of school, the report reads in part.
The report stated that Child marriage has been reduced by almost one third, and community campaigns to end the practice are having impacts.
One in five girls still get married when they are children and the actual number of child brides has gone up due to the growing population, the report stated.
It adds that Uganda's adolescent birth rate is among the highest in East Africa.
Giving birth young puts the lives of both mother and baby at risk, and makes it more likely that girls will drop out of school and become trapped in poverty.
Violence against Children
The 2018 Violence Against Children Survey (VACS) that was released by the Ministry of labour, gender, labour and social development documented widespread incidences ofsexual violence in the country but concluded that only a few cases are reported to the authorities which impacts on children's access to justice.
"1 in 3 girls suffer sexual violence during their childhoods and 7 in 10 boys suffer physical abuse," Ms Janat Mukwaya, the Minister of Gender labout and social development in her foreword of the survey.
The consequences of this violence on its survivors are devastating, increasing such negative outcomes as mental distress, sexually transmitted infections, and contemplation of suicide.
If children are vulnerable to violence in school, the goal of properly educating all Ugandan children will be compromised, the survey stated.
"I assure you that the Government of Uganda stands ready to use the VACS as a launching point to develop a comprehensive, evidence-based, and multi-sectoral action plan to prevent and respond to VAC," Ms Mukwaya said.
According to Police's annual Crime reports, in 2017, 14,567 defilement cases were reported to the Uganda Police Force (UPF) up from 7,690 defilement cases that were reported in 2011.
According to the statistics from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution (ODPP), out of 1,594 new rape cases and 7,618 defilement cases referred by the UPF to the ODPP in 2015/16, only 57 percent had satisfactory evidence and were accordingly sanctioned for prosecution in Courts of Law.
The low levels of perpetrator apprehension encourages perpetrators to continue harmful practices and exacerbating the sexual violence faced by children, most of whom are girls that are consequently forced out of school.
Continued abuses against children and forcing them out of school are likely to affect Uganda's path towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In September 2015, world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with goals to end poverty, improve health, reduce inequality and address climate change by 2030.
Under sustainable development goal (SDG) 4, countries committed to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all.
According to a performance monitoring and accountability 2020, (PMA2020), a project at Makerere University's School of Public Health which undertakes scientific research to track key indicators of family planning and WASH, the majority of women age 15-24 in Uganda (55.9%) have attended at least some primary school.
PMA's SDG brief states that among those who have never attended school, almost half (46.9%) are in the poorest wealth quintile. Ninety percent of women who have attended university are in the wealthiest quintile.
The brief suggests that increasing opportunities for education amongst the rural poor is critical to reducing inequity and eliminating poverty in Uganda.