By Felix Basiime
To safeguard against parents being tempted to pull their girls out of school to marry them off for goats, parents are given goats but on condition that they keep their daughters in school.
Naome Aisha, 12, walks over three kilometres daily from home to study in Primary Five at Mahyoro SDA Primary School in Mahyoro village, Karangura Sub County in Kabarole District.
Her parents, Nathan Mutera and Jackeline Biira, are peasants and at times fail to raise school fees and money for other scholastic materials.
Aisha is not alone facing this challenge. Annette Mbabazi, 14, also walks over three kilometres to study in Primary Seven at Kibyo Primary School in Kibyo village, also in Karangura. Her parents, Peter Rwabutuku and Topista Kirinda, are peasants too who grow beans and sell them to raise part of her school dues.
Both Aisha and Mbabazi grew up in a rural set up where early marriage is the order of the day due to the traditions and myths among the people in this hilly area. Here, a girl hardly studies beyond Primary Five. If she is not married off by her parents for quick money, she runs a risk of boys waylay her on the way back from school in the evenings and raping her, and the next day parents of both parties meet to settle the dowry, which is between Shs500,000 to Shs1m.
Goats to the rescue
However, Aisha, Mbabazi and some other needy girls in this district have managed to remain in school and stay focused on education despite the odds stacked against them in the rural set up that include a cob web of cultural beliefs and myths about young girls.
A goat project undertaken by Joy For Children (JFCU), an NGO operating in the Rwenzori sub region, has kept the girls at school.
JFCU gave 33 and 29 goats to girls at Kibyo SDA and Mahyoro Primary Schools respectively. Aisha and Mbabazi are among the beneficiaries of the goat project. Since 2005, Joy For Children-Uganda has been advocating for and supporting the rights and needs of vulnerable children in Uganda.
Along with a team of local and international volunteers, the NGO and its partners among others work to prevent all forms of violence against children, including child labour, ensure access to high-quality education for all children, and end the exploitation of girls and the practice of child marriage.
The goat project code named; Girls Empower Project "Is piloted in Karangura Sub County, Kabarole district in two schools; Mashyoro and Kibyo primary schools," says Jennifer Kahumuza, the area coordinator (Kabarole) Joy for Children Uganda.
"I received the goat in 2015. This goat is my security to stay at school. I make sure that before I go to school, I first take it to feed it and in the evening I come back rushing to untether it. If my parents ever fail to raise fees, I will sell its produce and remain in school," says Aisha.
"I also got a goat in 2015. It has now delivered twice, I have to safeguard my goats so that they help me stay in school until higher education," says Mbabazi.
"It is very difficult to nurture and teach girls in this area; they are enticed with small money to drop out of school by boys because of poverty," says Joy Muke, the Senior Woman at Kibyo Primary School.
She says the challenges of a girlchild in these hilly hard-to -reach area include walking long distances to school and the girls "meet many evils on the way."
At school, she says when a girl gets her monthly period, she is sent back home and misses classes. "There is poverty, no sanitary pads and parents cannot afford them. There are also no private washrooms at school where girls can help themselves," says Muke. "Without enough support and counselling for these girls by parents and teachers, child marriages will remain high in Uganda."
The cultural inhibitions
The rolling Karangura area is predominantly inhabited by Bakonjo whose most traditional rural set up parents marry off young girls. "The social, cultural traditions of Bakonjo consider marriage prestigious. The target for the parents is to get goats (as dowry) from the marriage unions and this has affected the girls' chances to continue with education," Muke observes.
She says that Joy For Children has invested in sensitising the parents in the area about marrying off their young girls and has shown them the benefits of education.
"The parents have now started knowing the value of education more than before, there is definitely great improvement of recent," Muke says.
According to UNESCO, Uganda has a very low primary survival rate of 33 per cent, this means that only one third of children starting together in Primary One still being together when completing the primary cycle in Primary Seven.
The primary survival rate in neighbouring Tanzania is 78 per cent. Major causes of school dropouts in Uganda are early marriages and teenage pregnancies according to Out of School Children Study in Uganda, 2014.
The Girls Empower project is aimed at reducing the high rate of school dropout by preventing early pregnancies and child marriages.
"Child marriage in Uganda is a result of many things. Mainly, it is a result of poverty as well as limited access to education for girls," Kahumuza says, adding, "Furthermore, strong traditional and social norms exist, which dictate that girls are married at a young age in order to fulfil their role as a wife and mother.
A survey carried out by the organisation in the mountainous sub counties of Kabarole District of Karangura, Kabonero, and Kateebwa inhabited mainly by Bakonjo in July -October 2013; found out that child marriage is the leading cause of girls dropping out of school.
At Nyarukamba Primary school in Karangura, the school dropout rate of girls for marriage was at 15 per cent in 2009 and 10 per cent in 2012. The young girls are married off in exchange for goats, ranging from one to five.
The same survey tells a story of a 14-year-old who did not sit for her Primary Leaving Examination 2013 at Nyarukamba Primary school.
Her parents negotiated for her marriage without her consent in exchange for two goats in a nearby community. The headteacher reported the case to police but the parents insisted that their daughter went to visit her relatives in another district.
The Girls Empower project have designed several strategies to combact these challenges including raising awareness, and education and empowerment through school outreaches to monitor formation and strengthening of child-rights clubs.
They are also training local leaders to participate in advocacy, giving out goats after signing a Memorandum of Understanding by parents committing to keep their girls in school, procurement and supply of scholastic materials, radio programs, training in life skills and making re-usable sanitary towels.
The project has so far reached 100 families targeting mainly vulnerable girls.
Mukewants government to set up more schools in Kabarole District, especially in the hilly areas such as Karangura so as to reduce on the distance walked by girl children from home to school. "Let government provide each school with a washroom and the NGOs provide basins and sanitary pads to girl pupils," Muke says.
He adds, "Government should also hire more female teachers at all schools in the country. You find at some instances a male teacher acting as 'Senior Man' to handle girlchild issues at schools because some schools don't have female teachers."
"Government and NGOs should give teachers in such hard-to-reach areas more essentials because we face a lot of challenges, you find I use my own resources to sensitise girls and parents," Muke observes.
She adds, "About three years ago, girl- children were not going beyond Primary Five but now most reach Primary Seven."
What is government doing?
Asked what programmes Kabarole District has put in place to avert early child marriages or to see children continue with education, the district vice chairman, Moses Ikagobya explains, "We lobbied Save the Children to help children, especially those out of school, by availing training in vocational skills.
"We also do sensitisation in collaboration with the schools administration through music, dance and drama".
In October 2016, State Minister for Primary Health Care, Joyce Moriku, while commemorating Safe Motherhood Day for Bundibugyo and Ntoroko Districts in Ntoroko District cautioned girls against engaging in sexual relations when they are still young as it endangers their lives and distorts their future.
She further said; "As government struggles to enhance health services in the country in fighting maternal mortality rates, parents also need to play their responsibility of warning children about the dangers of early marriages and early pregnancies. Most pregnant mothers who get complications during delivery are young girls, therefore, to reduce this problem of high maternal mortality rates, parents also have a crucial role to play," she said.
According to a research on the situation of Uganda's children carried out in Western Uganda in 2015 by Jostas Mwebembezi, an IT expert at Ride Africa, there is a gap in providing sex education.
"Our children might be at risk of engaging in sexual relations early, we have a lot of trouble trying to educate our children about sex education. We think we will tell our children to abstain, but they may not. There is a gap in providing sex education by the different people-by the parents, religious leaders or other people in the community" the research released on February 4, 2016, says.
The research was carried out in the Western districts of Bundibugyo, Hoima, Kabarole, Ntoroko, Kyegegwa, Kamwenge, Kasese, Kibaale, Kyenjojo, Masindi, and Buliisa.
According to the research, one in every four adolescents in Western region has had a teenage pregnancy while girls with even just primary level education are two times less likely to have had sex, while girls with secondary education are three times less likely.
According to the National Census report released by UBOS in 2016, in Kabarole District 82.4 per cent of children aged six to 12 years attend primary school. But the same report indicates that 82.4 per cent aged 15 years and older are not in school, having gone up to Senior Four as their highest level of education. The 2015 National service delivery survey, also conducted by UBOS, found that 72 per cent of primary schools in Tooro region provide lunch to pupils. Also, over eight in every 10 day pupils in Tooro travelled three kilometres or less to school.
Published on All Africa's website on May 8, 2017.