On the International Day of the Girl Child, rural adolescent girls highlight their plight

Call on stakeholders to support them

By Proscovia Nakibuuka Mbonye
Girls in a line holding hand-written signs
UNICEF Uganda/2016/Nakibuuka
11 December 2016

Moroto, 2016 - On the International Day of the Girl Child, Uganda joined the rest of the world to highlight the various challenges girls face while growing up.  The adolescent girls called for an end to corporal punishment, elimination of harmful cultural practices like female genital mutilation, elimination of child marriage, promotion and protection of their rights and increased support towards their education.

The national commemoration event that took place in Moroto District was graced by the Minister of State for Youth and Children Affairs, Hon. Florence Nakiwala Kiyingi, who represented Hon. Janet K. Museveni, Minister of Education and Sports/First Lady and the Champion for adolescent girls in Uganda. 

Kiyingi emphasized the need to invest in adolescent girls if Uganda is to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, before calling upon all stakeholders especially parents to play their roles towards improving the lives of young girls. She also emphasized government’s commitment towards supporting and mainstreaming adolescent girls’ programmes across all sectors.

Prior to the event, the Ministry of Education and Sports, Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, Civil Society Organisations with support from UNICEF organised a National Children Symposium that brought together over 70 boys and girls from the seven districts of the Karamoja region. During the symposium, the vibrant young girls and boys were given an opportunity and a platform to amplify their voices through interactions with decision-makers on issues that they face in accessing youth friendly health services, attaining an education and staying safe. The symposium was attended by district political and civic leaders, parents, teachers, local leaders, and representatives from UNICEF and development partners. 

Moroto District, one of the districts in the Karamoja region, was selected to host the event because recent research indicates that the Karamoja region is the most challenging place for the adolescent girl to live in, with over 14 per cent or half of girls between 10 to 19 years experiencing extreme vulnerabilities at individual, household and community level.  The region with 79 per cent poverty levels also has the highest number of vulnerable girls.

Scholastica Arutiang, a 17 year old girl from Lokorirot Village, Nadunget Subcounty, Moroto District, personally knows the challenges young girls in the Karamoja region face in accessing an education. 

Three years ago, Scholastica completed her primary leaving examination but could not join secondary school level because her father until now, does not believe in educating the girl child. 

Living in a lot of fear, she prayed that her father would not ‘sell’ her off for cows.

In my community, once girls fail to get school fees, they are married off by force because parents want to get cows.

Scholastica dropped out of school and her dream of becoming a teacher was crashed. However, she didn’t not give up. Together with her siblings, the young girls decided to collect firewood from a faraway forest for sale, but the money was still not enough to pay the school dues. 

When she made 16, men started frequenting their home to ask for her hand in marriage. She vividly remembers the number of warriors that often came to her home. “I was terrified because I know that when you marry young, you suffer with too much domestic work. At that age, your body is not ready to carry the pregnancy and you don’t even know how to take care of your babies very well,” she said with tears in her eyes. 

After a year and a half out of school, Scholastica was identified and rescued by International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), a small NGO that gives adolescent girls who drop out of school, a second chance through education. With support from UNICEF, IIRR also aims at strengthening adolescent girls’ resilience especially in a hard-to-reach areas like Karamoja. Scholastica has since returned to school and is now in senior two. 

According to Sarah Ajwang, the Programme Coordinator, IIRR, the organisation also trains and equips the girls with vocational skills in addition to formal education. “With the skills, the girls are economically empowered and can easily support themselves now to stay in school and also fend for themselves in future,” she added. 

During their free time, Scholastica and her friends make mats, skirts, bags, jewellery and many other things for sale. The girls are also trained in record keeping and saving money. “Had I stayed home, I would be married by now,” Scholastica interjects. “I am very happy to be back in school. I want to become someone important in future so I can help more girls to stay and complete school.”

Empowering girls with knowledge and skills they need to reach their full potential is not only good for girls, it can drive economic growth, promote peace and reduce poverty, stressed Ms. Aida Girma, the UNICEF Representative during the girl child day celebrations. 

The struggle to stay in school and complete is just one of the challenges that the girls in Karamoja face. Through songs, poems, traditional dances, the young girls shared more challenges that they encounter as they try to achieve their aspirations. Among them were early marriages, teenage pregnancies, female genital mutilation, corporal punishment, heavy domestic work, child neglect, parent’s negative attitude towards education especially for the girl child. Many highlighted menstruation as a major reason they consistently miss school and many girls dropping after being branded ’smelly’ and ridiculed by other pupils. 

Speaking at the event, the UN Resident Coordinator in Uganda applauded the efforts made thus far by the Government of Uganda in moving the Adolescent Girls Agenda forward. She pledged to continue working with the various partners – government, development partners, cultural leaders, religious leaders, civil society and Uganda’s citizens to ensure they prioritize the ‘girl child’ in their work.  

At the end of the two day symposium, the adolescent girls and boys compiled a ‘call to action’ which comprised of challenges and proposed solutions. The ‘call to action’ was delivered to the Hon. Minister of State for youth and children affairs who pledged to address their pleas with the various stakeholders. “Their progress is our progress.” Let us all invest in adolescent girls,” she concluded.