‘Cool’ grandma role models at the frontline fighting for girls’ education
The grandmothers are easily the most potent fighters in the war to save the girls from early marriage
Grandmothers world over are sweet and very loving people who do nice things for their grandchildren. Today’s new grandmothers of Karamoja, Uganda’s semi-arid remote sub region, also do nice things for the children, but with militancy.
To begin with, they become grandma’s in their thirties. So chronologically they are not the regular grandma as is known in other parts of the world. Their situation differs because they were married off in their early to mid-teens. And now they are determined that their daughters go (back) to school and remain there as long as possible, if they are to have a fighting chance in the modern world.
“Some of these girls are busy studying in school not knowing that their fathers have ‘already drunk them’ without their knowledge,”
Her colleague grandmas Gladys Among, Florence Achuko and Grace Atim concur.
“Our stubborn men would even pay more attention if we wore T-shirts showing we are on UN mission,” says super grandma Florence Acuko.
They explain that many men in Karamoja strike a deal with a rich polygamous man over their daughters when they are still young. The rich polygamist starts paying for the girl in form of cows and buying alcohol for the father as instalment payment for the girl, until one day to her shock, she is abruptly told that her husband has come to collect her to become his wife number five or seven…
These ladies, in their lower middle to middle age, are also called ‘Role Model Mothers’ to the Girls Education Clubs set up by Trail Blazers Foundation –TMF with UNICEF support and funding from Irish Aid. Their core role is mentoring the adolescent girls in schools to ensure they remain in school, even if they have fallen victim of early marriage/pregnancy. The young grandmas ensure that the babies of the teenage girls are taken care of so that the young mothers return to school, and that their peers survive the early motherhood remain unviolated as long as possible.
These ‘cool’ grandmothers are easily the most potent fighters in the war to save the girls from early marriage, as nobody with a different background can do what they do so passionately. They walk long distances to schools where they talk to girls about the dangers stalking them, for they have been through them. They were married off young and after a decade or two as mothers in marriages with now younger co-wives, they are experienced enough and as senior wives, no longer tightly policed in the homestead. They know the culture, the local politics and all the tricks the men use to drive girls into premature marriages.
Very importantly too, these grandmothers can talk with a measure of authority as they intervene in the numerous cases of early marriages. They can talk to the public officials including the police, to the husbands of the young girls with a view to dissolving the marriages, to the fathers of the girls who cannot wait to get dozens of cows as bride price for a teenage girl and to their fellow women, mothers of the girls who are at risk of being married off. No project worker and no endangered girl can play these roles which the role model mothers execute so selflessly without any form of pay from anybody.
The cool grandmas engage different stakeholders, some of them still hostile to girls’ education (for the more educated a girl gets the less cows she can command in bride price as she is considered ‘spoilt’, and for communities that practice Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), the bride price of a girl who escaped this cultural practice that violates the rights of girls and women, automatically falls to zero cows).
One achievement the dynamic grandmas are pursuing for different schools is the liberation of schoolgirls from collecting firewood. For it is during the firewood collection trips in the woods that strong young men “carry” girls off to marry them. This is a traditional way of courting where a girl is stalked and violently seized by a young man who is helped by his gang of friends and she is taken away to be repeatedly raped until she ‘voluntarily’ submits and then the young man claims her and starts paying the bride price.
At Panyangara Primary School, we find Regina Athabo has participated in convincing several child mothers to return to school. “Karimojong society is an unforgiving society,” she explains. “A girl who has had a child and leaves the marriage will be cursed, so her only hope is to return to school and ultimately be able to fend for herself later in life.”
The practice varies from community to community but follows a closely similar pattern. The grandmothers were themselves “carried” and are doing all they can to reduce chances of their daughters’ generation facing the same. One way they are achieving this is by engaging communities neighbouring the schools to contribute the firewood without any girl having to go to collect it from the forest. Firewood is still very important in education as it provides energy for cooking the food in the school for boarding learners. Boarding school is the surest way of ensuring that girls study uninterrupted and not abducted into forced marriage.
Through TMF and UNICEF support, each grandmother mentors some twenty girls in a school. So five grandmothers mentor a hundred girls in a given school. But they have many schools to cover, so each woman –the role model mother- gets to meet her girls in each school two or three times in a term (of three months).
When the role model mothers, or grandmothers are being selected, the key criterion is that one has a child in one of the schools. This confirms that she has a stake, a reason to be and remain in the struggle. For it is a tough battle they must fight, walking up to a hundred miles in a week to meet the girls, engaging and confronting powerful local conservatives, lobbying elected councillors who run the local governments and when push comes to shove, engaging the police.
All this is done under the Promoting Access to Quality and Equitable Education for Karamoja Children programme, implemented by TMF with UNICEF support and funding from Irish Aid.
They are the real heroines of girl education in a difficult environment, these cool grandmothers who largely missed the chance to go to school themselves, and they are not about to give up the fight. Asked what they require to keep soldiering on, the commonest answer we got in the different communities we found them was that they need branded T-shirts to enhance their being recognized as the they go about their mission!
“It would be good if we could get some printed notes to follow and also give to the girls after talking to them." “It would help a lot because time passes from one visit to a particular school to the next visit.”