Policy gaps. Child rights activists said Uganda has a vast number of laws, policies and programmes and if put in practice, they would effectively end child marriage.
Mr Gerald Baale, the Kamwenge senior probation and social welfare officer, noted that despite the many laws and policies in place, the country continues experiencing significant sexual and reproductive health challenges such as high cases of teenage pregnancy and early marriages in schools. This, he said, is due to poor implementation of the laws and policies.
In Uganda, 10 per cent of girls in Uganda are married before 15 years while 40 per cent are married by the age of 18. Uganda is ranked 18th worldwide in regard to child marriage (UNICEF, 2016 statistics).
Thousands of school girls across the country will not return to school after getting pregnant or married during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Candidate classes are already at school while semi-candidate classes reported back yesterday. The other classes will report in a staggered manner in subsequent months
But how many will return to school? Findings from selected districts across the country are disturbing.
Data from Kitgum Diocese indicates that 3,430 teenage girls between 14 and 16 years got pregnant between March and October 2020. Of these, 780 are from Kitgum District, 1,000 from Lamwo District, 730 from Agago and 920 from Pader.
Kitgum Diocese Bishop Wilson Kitara last week warned: “These girls who get pregnant at an early age face high risk of long term health consequences during pregnancy and child birth.”
In Kabale, the senior probation and social welfare officer, Ms Monica Muhumuza Nzeirwe, said 1,014 teenage pregnancies were recorded at different health centres in the district between January and September 2020. The child mothers are aged between 15 and 19.
The probation and social welfare officer noted that poverty, redundancy as a result of Covid-19 lockdown, poor parenting and peer pressure are the key drivers of child marriages and pregnancies.
“I anticipate that about half of the girls’ population in schools may not report back once the schools officially open,” Ms Muhumuza said last week.
Mr Samuel Kyaide, the Uganda National Teachers Union (Unatu) chairperson in Kibuku, said about 200 girls of school-going age got pregnant in the district during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Mr Moses Mudidiri, the head teacher of Kibuku Senior Secondary School, said 20 girls from his institution got pregnant.
“I am aware that about 20 girls are pregnant and may not come back to school, although the ministry [of Education] has given a green light for them to report and study,” he said.
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) operating in Bukedi Sub-region have urged schools to subject the reporting female students and pupils to mandatory pregnancy tests when they return to school.
Mr Francis Okiror, a field officer with Citizen Initiative for Democracy and Development (CIDD-UG), said this is to ensure that such girls are supported to stay in school.
“Many girls were defiled and impregnated during the lockdown and among the female candidates, who have returned to school, some are pregnant but the schools have not ascertained that yet,” he said.
Mr Christopher Wamika, the Kibuku District education officer, said they are on ground to engage different stakeholders on whether mandatory pregnancy tests should be carried out in schools.
However, Pallisa District education officer Agnes Lukendo said the exercise has financial implications such as procurement of testing kits and other logistics.
“The idea of mandatory pregnancy testing in schools is good but needs collective efforts from different key players and financial support,” she said.
Pallisa District health officer, Dr Godfrey Mulekwa said: “We are ready to partner with the education department in executing this exercise but we need to be facilitated in different forms,” he said.
Appeal to govt
Grace Kantono,14, a victim of teenage pregnancy in Budaka, said government should allocate special funds to support child mothers.
“I would have completed Primary Seven but that dream was shattered the day I got pregnant. I sometimes fail to even get food for myself and the child. I request the government to support us because we are many. We are also Ugandans,” Kantono said.
The Budaka District health officer, Dr Elisa Mulwani, said the rate of teenage pregnancy in the area stands at 24.7 per cent.
Mr Aron Isabirye, executive director of Infinity Network Development Foundation Uganda, an NGO, said about 130 underage girls got married during the Covid-19 lockdown in Lwengo District.
“There are many cases which go unreported when parents have connived with the perpetrators to secretly settle the matter,” he said.
Mr Alfred Besigensi, the Kabale acting district health officer, said teenage pregnancies are likely to double by the end of 2021.
Mr James Ruhweza, a parent from Kabarole District, disclosed that his daughter, who was in Senior Three at Karugutu Secondary School in Ntoroko, was impregnated by a soldier. “She was married to him for some few months but after realising that the man had many wives, my daughter decided to terminate the pregnancy. She has requested me to take her back to school, which I will do,” Mr Ruhweza said.
Mr Rwaheru Byaruhanga, the chairperson of Kachwakumu Village in Kanara Sub-county, Ntoroko District, said more than 20 school girls were impregnated in the area.
“I can confirm to you that not all learners will go back to school. For example, some of our schools are still submerged in water, some girls have been impregnated, others have either joined business or have lost interest in studies,” he said.
The head of the Child and Family Protection Unit at Kabarole Central Police Station, Ms Agnes Angom, said the majority of early marriages and teenage pregnancies are not reported by parents. “In January 2021 alone, we received 14 cases of defilement,” she said.
Up to 2.5 million more girls around the world are at risk of early marriage in the next five years because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Save the Children has warned.
A Daily Monitor investigation found that cases of early marriages and teenage pregnancies are rampant in refugee host districts of Kyegegwa, Kamwenge, Isingiro and Kiryandongo
Refugee host districts hit hard
In Isingiro, for instance, data from the Health Management Information System (HMIS) estimates that about 3,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 19 get pregnant annually and most of them are married off.
“The ones that attend antenatal care clinics are in thousands,” Ms Justine Atusasiire, the senior probation and social welfare officer, said.
“Few of those who attend the ANC (antenatal care) clinics are either survivors of defilement but majority are married girls. That is why they get the confidence to go for ANC freely. So you find that in a year, 3000 girls have gotten pregnant,” she added
Mr Augustine Nyakabwa, the Kyegegwa senior probation and social welfare officer, said girls in the district get married between the age of 14 and 16.
“But recently I got a report which is yet to be verified that someone has even conceived at the age of 12,” he said.
Mr Stephen Douglas Asiimwe, the Kyegegwa District education officer, said child marriage and teenage pregnancy are stressing challenges.
“We have some confirmed married girls. At Isunga Primary School, we have one girl already married off, at Sooba Primary School, we also have a girl married off and there are reports that two girls at Nyamwebabira Primary School have been married off,” he said.
Dr Allan Katamba Semakula, the Kaliro District health officer, said teenage pregnancies have spiked during the lockdown, with the current rates standing at 28 per cent against the national average of 25 per cent.
“Teenage pregnancy rates in Kaliro are so high that if you move to the corners of the district, you will find a 15-year-old mother or a 20-year-old mother of three…,” Dr Katamba said.
He said recently he delivered a 15-year-old pregnant girl, who reportedly did not know the father of her child or where he lived.
According to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), teenage pregnancies in Uganda during and post Covid-19 lockdown increased, with Busoga region having the highest reported cases.
While schools reopened for candidate classes on October 15, Kaliro Chief Administrative Officer, Mr Robert Mulondo, said: “Some girls hadn’t reported because of pregnancy or had been married off.”
Negative gender norms, poor parenting coupled with greed for dowry, poverty and ignorance are being blamed for the rising child marriage in western Uganda. Others are peer pressure, displacement, breakdown in social protection and safety nets, and deeply entrenched traditions and views.
“Traditional beliefs still force many girls to get married at an early age here,” Mr Stephen Douglas Asiimwe, the Kyegegwa District Health Officer, said.
In some areas, there are tribes that are encouraging marriages. Once the girl is about 15, they want to exchange her for bride-price or feel she is old enough to make family, he said.
On February 8, 2021, the staff at Soroti Regional Referral Hospital counselled two pregnant 15-year-old girls at the antennal care unit. The girls were in Primary Six at the time the government imposed a lockdown.
Sr Christine Agwang, the in-charge of the maternity ward, said in August 2020 alone, 300 cases of early teen pregnancies were recorded at the facility.
In Kaberamaido, Mr Rogers Ejotu, the gender officer, said in Alwa Sub-county, 59 young girls gave birth in the first quarter of 2020.
In Isingiro, the moment someone delivers a baby girl, then they begin expecting cows for bride price, according to the area senior probation and social welfare officer, Ms Justine Atusasiire.
“When we want statistics of children below 18 years that have been married off, it is not easy to get them because the community does not report them,” Ms Atusasiire explained.
In Ibanda, many school-going children have opted to look for employment in hotels, sand and stone quarries in order to get money.
The area senior probation and social welfare officer, Mr Dominic Mukiza, said: “Many homes have sent their sons to work in the farms of rich men where they graze cattle, and rear goats, pigs and sheep while girls get employment as babysitters and house girls.”
On February 1, 2021, four people, including a 16-year-old Primary Six girl, were arrested in Kwania District for allegedly taking part in child marriage.
The suspects were apprehended during a giveaway ceremony following a tip off by concerned citizens.
In Biguli Sub-county, Kamwenge District, a 16-year-old girl was rescued from child marriage on November 8, 2020. In this particular case, the girls’ parents allegedly connived with local leaders.
Compiled by Bill Oketch, Mudangha Kolyangha, Fred Wambede, Robert Muhereza, Suzan Nanjala, Wilson Kutamba, Philip Wafula, Alex Ashaba, Elly Karenzi , George Emuron, Emmanuel Eumu & Simon Peter Emwamu and first published in the Daily Monitor