A girl is survives abduction and forced marriage

Attributes survival to quick response from a UNICEF-supported Social Welfare Officer in her village

By Proscovia Nakibuuka Mbonye
violence against children, VAC, child abuse, force marriage, early marriage, adolescent girl, girls education, Karamoja sub region, Kaabong District, child rights
UNICEF Uganda/2022/Mugisha
10 May 2022

In some districts of the Karamoja sub-region, harmful cultural practices that violate the rights of children, especially girls, continue to exist. In Kaabong District, wrestling of girls resulting in forced marriages continues to happen in addition to other forms of child rights violations.

In 2021, while schools remained closed for almost two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some communities in Kaabong District remained unsafe for children. 

15-year-old Nakiru (names changed) was among those affected. As she pondered how the prolonged school closures were crushing her dreams, her stepmother was planning her marriage to an older man without her knowledge and consent.  On hearing the horrible news, Nakiru declined but this was not enough to stop the planned marriage. She was also confident that her father would protect her. The delay prompted the would-be suitor to abduct Nakiru by wrestling her down while visiting the trading centre for some errands. The act is a common cultural practice in her community where girls are wrestled down by a group of men and married forcefully.  

On the fateful day, Nakiru managed to escape seeking refuge at a friend’s home. To date, she still doesn’t know how she managed to escape from the group of men so determined to harm her. 

Luckily, she had attended a session where leaders in her village had provided reporting pathways for child abuse and any other violations of child rights. At the session supported by UNICEF, Nakiru and other children and young people had also been educated about their rights.  So, she knew where to report if she was ever in danger. 

violence against children, VAC, child abuse, force marriage, early marriage, adolescent girl, girls education, Karamoja sub region, Kaabong District, child rights
UNICEF Uganda/2022/Mugisha

She immediately advised her hosts to notify the Parish Chief, who quickly involved Betty Kolbi, the Social Welfare Officer  (SWO) and the district  probation office.  The Social Welfare Officer rescued Nakiru and immediately  reported the case to Police, and the perpetrators were arrested. They remain in prison serving a 7-year sentence. The quick and coordinated management of Nakiru’s case  depicts the Child Protection System Strengthening approach the government has undertaken with support from UNICEF right from the grassroots to the national level.

Creating safe communities for children

For children to enjoy their childhood, they need  violence-free communities. In 2021, UNICEF through the local government with funding from the Spanish National Committee for UNICEF  recruited and trained social welfare officers who were placed at the sub-county level in most of its focus districts including Kaabong District. The officers are also known as the immediate  caseworkers who identify, report and track cases against violation of child rights while ensuring timely case management. A total of sixty-seven social welfare officers have benefitted from UNICEF support. 

violence against children, VAC, child abuse, force marriage, early marriage, adolescent girl, girls education, Karamoja sub region, Kaabong District, child rights, social welfare officer
UNICEF Uganda/2022/Mathias

Kolbi is one of the eleven social welfare officers in Kaabong District. She is deployed to Kaabong East sub-county where Nakiru resides. Kolbi is very passionate about children’s issues and will not rest until a child rights violation case is closed and perpetrators apprehended. 

She recalls the rampant child rights violations in her community before she was deployed. Kolbi mentions that while she registered defilement and abduction cases daily, the cases have significantly reduced.  In 2021 alone, she handled 22 defilement cases and most of the cases have been closed with a few pending because the perpetrators are on the run while others lack witnesses. “While defilement cases have greatly reduced, child labour mainly mining gold and child neglect remain prevalent,” Kolbi mentions. 

She notes that the skills and knowledge attained from the UNICEF training are paying off. Working closely with model parents, social welfare officers like Kolbi are sensitizing communities,  including young people and children, on child rights, violence against children,  harmful cultural practices as well as the reporting referral and referral pathways. The latter are well known and have supported the timely rescue of children in danger.  

violence against children, VAC, child abuse, force marriage, early marriage, adolescent girl, girls education, Karamoja sub region, Kaabong District, child rights, social welfare officer
UNICEF Uganda/2022/Mugisha

Kolbi, who continues to provide Nakiru with counselling and psychosocial support describes her as a resilient young girl and proud that she knew and was able to report when in danger.

Today, Nakiru remains fragile, a year after the incident. She recalls the events of the day like they just happened yesterday. The scars caused by the unfortunate incident remain fresh.

“If it were not for the Parish Chief and Social Welfare Officer, I would be married now. Marriage is not for children, it is for grown women,” 

Nakiru shares with teary eyes.

Resilient and determined to chase her dream, Nakiru has returned to school. She enjoys reading and hopes to become a nurse in future. “I am working hard because nurses work hard.”

Nakiru currently resides with her Aunt in another village. According to Mathew Kubal,  the Acting District Probation and Social Welfare Officer for Kaabong affirms that Nakiru is slowly healing. “Removing her from the place where the incident happened helps erase the bad memories and fear that Nakiru would struggle with as she heals. In the new environment, she started a new journey in her life,” he adds.