A 15-year-old girl escapes child marriage

Seeks help at a UNICEF-supported school

By Proscovia Nakibuuka Mbonye
child marriage, child protection, adolescent girls, back to school, child protection systems, female genital mutilation, FGM, Uganda
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Bongyereirwe
12 October 2020

Among the Pokot tribe in Amudat District, in the Karamoja sub-region, girls as young as 10 are considered ready for marriage. This practice, which robs girls of their childhood and violates their rights, is common. Moreover, when the girls are married off, they are subjected to yet another harmful practice – female genital mutilation/cutting as a rite of passage into marriage and womanhood. 

Agnes’s story

child marriage, child protection, adolescent girls, back to school, child protection systems, female genital mutilation, FGM, Uganda
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Bongyereirwe

Fifteen-year-old Agnes (not her real name) sweeps the compound at her parents’ home in Lokorokocha village. She has just returned from the gardens where she spent the morning. Today she feels safe at home. Before she returned home in March 2020, Agnes was attending primary three at Kalas Primary School in Amudat District.

A few months ago, Agnes’s story was very different. Her home suddenly became unsafe when she heard that her father was planning to marry her and her sister off. At only 15 years, her father thought it was the right time for her to start a home with a man, a common practice in Pokot culture. However, Agnes was not ready, and together with six other girls, she ran away from home and sought refuge at Amudat police station. 

The police’s Child and Family Protection Unit, which is supported by UNICEF under the Global Programme on to End Child Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation, helped to protect the girls from child and forced marriage. The Police and Family Protection unit in collaboration with the district social welfare department provides temporary shelter in Kalas Primary School, a rescue centre for young girls escaping early marriage and female genital mutilation in the district where they rehabilitated before they are reintegrated back with their family. 

To ensure Agnes and her sister continue to receive support from their parents to keep them in school, her father signed a written commitment, which he has kept up to today. The girls have also been made aware of their rights to protection and including other available services and reporting pathways they can use when in danger.

At Kalas Primary School, Agnes and the other girls have found a safe place and are receiving psychosocial support by the district probation office, thanks to UNICEF. 

“We work closely with the district local government to provide psychosocial support and other services to rescued girls, especially those in the temporary shelter,”

confirms Christine Koli, UNICEF Child Protection Officer.

Preparing communities to welcome the girls back

Today, Agnes’s father, 50-year-old Lopus Loyaka, advocates against early marriage in his community, following UNICEF-supported community mobilization, sensitization, community dialogues on social norms change and positive parenting programme on ending harmful practices. The father of five children – two girls and three boys, has vowed to keep his girls in school until they complete their studies. “When they complete, they will empowered young women because of the knowledge they will acquire. For instance, the teachers and doctors you see all went to school, so my daughters could be those professionals in future. That is the value of education,” he shares.

However, his actions, which have defied the cultural practice of early marriage, have come with a cost. His peers often ridicule him for remaining poor because he has not married off his daughters. To them, daughters are a source of wealth because of the bride price that is paid to girls’ families.

“They call me a weak man and a fool, but I don’t mind what they say.” They tell me that I will die a poor man,”

says Lopus.

After becoming knowledgeable about the dangers of child marriage, when he looks around his community, he is saddened by the plight of young girls struggling in marriage. “They can hardly look after their homes and their children because they are children themselves. They also have lots of challenges during childbirth because their bodies are not yet ready.”

While at the borehole and community gatherings, he takes time to talk to his peers on the dangers of child marriage and vows not to give up. His messages are consistent despite the ridiculing he receives in return. 

Today Lopus is enjoying the company of his daughters at home. The girls are back from school following school closures, but they are happy to be home and no longer find it unsafe. In preparation for their return, the district probation office spoke at length with Lopus and his wife, sensitizing them about the dangers of early marriage. Follow-up sessions and monitoring the status of the girls continue to make sure they are safe.

child marriage
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Bongyereirwe

Having signed a commitment to keep his daughters in school, Lopus confirms that he will support them until they complete their education. This is great news for Agnes who rarely speaks in the presence of her father. It is common behaviour in their culture. She says she is happy to be back to school and ready to work hard in order to become a ‘madam’, which means teacher, when she completes her studies.