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Children in Karamoja claim their right to learn


Jumbe, Karamoja, 2012 – The announcement from the loudspeaker carries loud and clear across Amudat Town: “Every child has the right to education. It is time for children to go back to school.” The same announcements reverberate across Uganda, part of a national ‘Go Back to School’ campaign. But how effective is this kind of public advocacy?

The impact can be a social revolution when part of a comprehensive approach of keeping children both safe and learning. That is the case in the 1,000-strong village of Jumbe, in the Amudat district of Karamoja. Here at least 70 girls and boys have defied tradition and claimed their right to be educated.

“When you look at me do you see a shepherd?” challenges young Amos Doctor. “I look at me and see a school boy, not a shepherd.” Amos voluntarily presented himself at the office of the Resident District Commissioner (RDC), Mr. Steven Bewayo, and demanded the RDC help him go to school.

Like the other children who have arrived at schools in Amudat Town, Amos has siblings who were chosen to attend school, but he was to remain at home to undertake chores. Amos and his peers chose instead to come to school. But there is more to this story than a successful education campaign.

The mothers and grandmothers of Jumbe have quietly been encouraging their children to go to school. “Our life is hard, it cannot be for them as it was for us,” explain the mothers. “There are no cattle like before,” another continues. “The only way for our children to have a better life is to go to school.”

Leading nomadic, cattle-centric lifestyles, the Pokot people that inhabit Jumbe may seem similar to the Karamajong tribes that surround them. They are distinctive in at least one important aspect: the Pokot practice Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Although illegal, FGM/C remains extensively in Pokot, if now clandestinely, practiced.

Efforts to keep children safe from harmful traditional practices such as FGM/C and early marriage have been led by government, and partners such as the local, non-governmental organization, TPO. TPO has been working with the Jumbe community with UNICEF support. The result is that many of the women support educating all their children, especially girls.

Fourteen-year-old Chemoi attended school until she had to leave home when her father married her off as the seventh wife of an older man. “I asked my husband if I could continue to go to school. He beat me. I kept asking.” Her body shows evidence of extensive physical abuse. “I decided I was not ready to be a woman or a wife,” she says. “I ran away and came to school.”

Jumbe’s women and girls are paying dearly for their convictions, yet remain bravely committed to them. Fathers blame and beat their wives for fuelling what they view as their children’s defiance. Some have threatened to disown the children who went to school without their permission, and to withdraw their support of the children they chose to send to school. Son-in-laws who find their young brides in the classroom instead of the manyatta have demanded a reimbursement of the bride price they paid. Many of the men demand that the women, who do not control any of the household resources, come up with a financial solution.

Resource strains of a different kind are being felt in local schools. None of the schools planned for an influx of this many students, children who are eager to learn, but equipped only with the clothes they arrive wearing. Necessities including food, soap, clothes, scholastic materials, blankets, beds and dormitory space are urgently needed to cope. And more new students continue to arrive each week.

Fortunately the community has the support of many. Government, through the RDC and district leadership, together with TPO, are working to diffuse the gender standoff in Jumbe and ensure that the children remain both united with their families and continue their schooling. The receiving schools remain committed to educating their newest students and UNICEF has mobilized some of the needed supplies. 

Amos said it best when he first sat in Mr. Bewayo’s office. “Someone is impatient, Mr. RDC. That someone is me. How much longer do I have to wait? I want to go to school now!”




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