By Tusiime Tutu
Child Marriages continue to persist within African Cultures. Specifically, in Uganda, in the Karamoja region, child marriages remain a rampant practice. As early as 12 years of age, girls are married off in exchange for accrued wealth in the form of cows; some of which cattle are promised while the girl is still an infant.
According to the constitution of Uganda, the legal age for marriage is 18 years. This law from 1995 came to replace existing customs and traditions of marriage. My grandmother, for example, lawfully married my grandfather at 14. This was in the early 1930s. Fast forward to the 21st century, some communities in Uganda still marry girls off even before they are teenagers.
In “Little Faith“, an award-winning documentary about the first female doctor in Karamoja, a 14-year-old Betty recounts that she was to be married off at 12 years, till she ran away in search of rescue at the start of COVID-19 in 2020. The education of girls remains contrary to the custom practices of the Karimojong and Pokot people, who occupy most districts in North-Eastern Uganda, including the Amudat District.
In Amudat District, though, is Kalas Girls’ Primary School. This mission school was established in 1964 by the catholic mission in Karamoja. Kalas Girls’ Primary School hosts both boarding and day schoolgirls to study from preschool to primary seven. Fortunately, even though the school is privately run, in 2013 the government identified the school as a temporary shelter for girls who run away from their homes when forced into marriages or denied education.
“When I joined the school in 2019, I found nine girls in residence because they could not return to their homes,” notes Sister Prossy Nantege, current headteacher at Kalas Girls’ Primary School. In 2020, while other schools were forced to shut down due to the COVID-19 lockdown, Kalas Girls’ Primary School remained open to girls running away from early marriages.
“I was supposed to be married off. The cows were ready, and the meetings were done. I was approached to stop secondary schooling and marry, yet I wanted to be a doctor,” recounts Dr Faith Nangiro, medical officer at Amudat Hospital in Amudat District, Karamoja region.
In 2015, the government of Uganda launched the National Strategy to End Child Marriages and Teenage Pregnancies. According to Mr Michael Longok, District Development Community Officer and Probation Officer for Welfare in Amudat District, part of the government’s strategy includes enforcing the education of girls by arresting parents who force their girls to marry at a young age. “We go into the communities, rescue the girls and bring them to Kalas Girl’s Primary School which becomes their temporary home.”
The rescue mission.
According to Sister Prossy, even more girls ran away from their homes during the Covid-19 pandemic and took shelter at the school. In 2023 the school now hosts 63 girls, a significant rise from the 9 girls she found in 2019. In 2022, seven of the girls in the guardianship of the school graduated primary seven and are now in senior one supported by different organizations including UNICEF, ActionAid, WELT HUNGER HILFE and individuals like Dr. Faith Nangiro.
At five years old, Dr Faith rebelled denied education and ran away to primary school. Later, while at secondary school, Dr Faith rebelled again. “Luckily my father agreed that ‘if you do not want to marry, we will not force you’. People called me ill-mannered, but I knew what I wanted,” recounts Dr Faith in the 2022 Uganda Film Festival’s Best Documentary, “Little Faith”. In 2019, Dr Faith graduated with a bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery from Mbarara University of Science and Technology.
Unfortunately, some of the girls at Kalas are only able to escape after they have given birth to children and need extra care. The girls are engaged in counselling and psychosocial rehabilitation at the school by visiting organizations and counsellors. “We however need an in-house counselor, and this isn’t something we can take on as a school. It is good that organizations or people talk to the girls and counsel them, but one-off sessions do little to help. The girls need continuous psychological care for effective rehabilitation,” advises Sister Prossy.
During the pandemic, with cases of defilement, child marriages and teenage pregnancies rising in the region, the school received an insurgency in numbers growing to over 80 girls. However, some of the girls still return to their homes and have illegal husbands. In fact, according to Mr. Michael, Amudat District Probation Officer, more than ten years ago when the district started mobilization efforts, over 200 girls were identified to be rescued and taken back to school. This number became a momentary mass action.
A Girl’s Faith in Education
In the documentary Little Faith, Dr Faith (the first female doctor in Karamoja), notes that she wanted to return to Amudat District and show the girls and other community members that it is possible for a girl to study and excel.
“I want people to normalize taking girl children to school. If a girl wants to be a doctor, I want to show my community that it’s okay to be worked on by a girl and for the girls to see that it is doable” Dr Faith.
In the documentary film Little Faith, directed by Nassanga (Afrie) Ann, 16-year-old Betty notes that she wants to be a brain surgeon. Since the documentary interview in 2021, Betty scored best in the school at primary seven with 13 aggregates. Betty is currently in senior one.
Starting in 2023, the girls who reside at the school will, during holidays, create beaded products like jewellery. This is in addition to the other vocational training the girls engage in, like tailoring. For example, in February 2023, without any measurements shared, a teenager in Primary Five made me a perfectly fitting Lorwa skirt (cultural wear for the Karimojong girls). Essentially, these vocational skills supplement classroom training.
‘Let Her Know’ she has a right to education.
In 2021, Dr Faith encouraged the Filmmaker Nassanga (Afrie) Ann to support a list of girls in furthering their education. “I was very particular about mobilizing to support the girls beyond giving them a platform to tell their story,” Recounts Afrie, the singer/songwriter for the song ‘Let Her Know’. In September 2020, Afrie’s song was identified by the African Union/ CIEFFA as the theme song for the #AfricaEducatesHer campaign. The campaign produced a remix of Let Her Know featuring Uganda’s Afrie, Burkina Faso’s Smarty and Nigeria’s Ifé.
Through efforts between Dr Faith and Filmmaker Nassanga (Afrie) Ann, several girls are supported via the Little Faith Foundation. “So far in terms of school fees payment, we have sponsored 50 girls and in terms of other materials, we have engaged 100 girls with one girl in senior one now.” These girls are supported at both Kalas Girls’ Primary School and Dr Faith’s former school, St. Mary’s Girls’ Primary School.
‘Afrie’ also released an EP, called ‘Sunflowers in the Sahara‘, which stylistically features a song titled ‘Little Faith‘ featuring Ugandan eco-artist Sandra Suubi. Early this year, the singer sold over 200 copies of the EP, a percentage of which went to support the education of girls in Karamoja. “I felt the need to contribute directly to education in Karamoja and use art to make it possible,” notes Nassanga (Afrie) Ann.
Contemporary Uganda has for years held that ‘we shall not wait for Karamoja to develop’. However, visiting Kalas Girls’ Primary School provides light against this misconception. “The whole school currently has an enrollment of 744. The rescued girls are 63 including cases of child marriages, Female Genital Mutilation and denied education.” Confirms Sister Prossy who was posted at the school in 2019.
Girl education continues to grow in the region as several organizations flock to Karamoja to help the plight of young girls. According to Amudat District Probation Officer for welfare, Mr Michael, ActionAid is constructing a permanent shelter which will hence become the permanent residence for girls who run away from their homes in search of a better life.
These efforts though still remain tentative. For Sister Prossy, the mission will continue at Kalas Girls’ Primary School until the district takes over. “It’s not easy because the district has not been intentional in their support towards the care of the girls.” Sister Prossy concludes.
In Uganda, ‘Kaleke Kasome’ is not just a phrase, it is a plight and call to action to let girls attend school. This pop culture phrase is derived from the 2005 hit song Kaleke Kasome by Ugandan Singer Maurice Hassa, who later started the Kaleke Kasome Foundation which supports girls’ education in Mpigi District. About 20 years after the song, the education of girls continues to require intensive efforts throughout Uganda.
This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Tutu Tusiime and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.