Parents in areas where cases of defilement have been reported said they preferred to take fines and marry off their pregnant teenage daughters – Isis Wicce Survey
October 11 each year is International Day of the Girl child (Day of the girl mainly in the united States). I still have sharp memories from the night I spent in a police cell on November 27,2016 after my arrest in Uganda. I was taken aback by my cellmates with whom it came to my knowledge over 10 hours later, were all school dropouts, 3 below the age of 25 and one of them above 30 (at least judging by her mannerisms). You see on my entry into this unbearably stuffy cell, I didn’t know what to expect or even who I’d find on the inside and when the door rammed open all I saw were moving figures as the cell has no light.
As my eyes tried to find space to settle, the door was shut and with it went the little light I had hoped to use to recognize the faces my cellmates. Because of fear of the unknown in the cell, I stood in one spot for over 3 hours as the now awake cellmates who I could only differentiate by voice asked all kinds of questions (in vernacular) some of which I had no answers to. They later became friendly, offered me a stretch spot on the long dusty blanket they all shared on the bare floor of the cell – one that from feel on my bare feet and sense of smell had not been washed in days or weeks (it must be a deliberate move to give suspects a taste of what jail could look like). I tried to blend in but with that blanket, I couldn’t. I stood again, got tired, sat on the floor for a whole night that turned out to be one the longest ones ever. The tales of the night are a story for another day.
Fast forward to 5:30am the following morning, it was hitting; a female police officer came and ordered us to go clean up. The state of the “washrooms” is also a story for another day. However, it was at this point I started to put faces to the voices that had been “questioning me” the previous night. I noticed two of the girls were clad in uniform which from the week’s long stay in my home town that November were Royal guards in the Rwenzuru Kingdom, one of the traditional kingdoms in Uganda. One of them was nursing a bullet wound from the shootings that had happened days earlier in which they had been the only two survivors from one of the previous days’ shootings while the other was helping her take a quick shower (well more like dry-clean her body) so she doesn’t waste much time. We had 15 minutes in total to clean-up so time was of the essence. The third cellmate was a girl I estimated to be about 17 at most. she had been the more open one – open enough to tell me in the middle of the night that she had ran away from her grandfather’s home to become a sex worker at one of the small tourist sites in the town and that her reason for arrest was that she was under age and involved in “illegal business”. The fourth cellmate and eldest of them all I learnt, was arrested for lack of legal identification in a salt mining area called “Katwe” in the outskirts of the town where routine checks were being done on illegal artisanal miners.
when we were returned to the cell from the “washroom place” which was meters away from the cell, the two cellmates who caught my attention the most were the two Rwenzururu kingdom female royal guards who looked much younger by physical appearance. And this time, it was my turn to ask the questions. Female Royal Guard 1 (let’s call her FRG1) volunteered to give me information about her situation. She was in school right up to form 4 (senior 4) and dropped out before end of the first term. Reason being there was no more money to see her through school and her options were to either find work to do or get married off to someone for financial gain by her relatives at 20 years old. FRG 2’s story was similar to FRG1 with the only difference being that her school tuition was being paid for by her close relatives who just decided to divert this money meant for her school fees to a farm business that later collapsed due to poor book keeping and the one option left was to get married. Determined to find work these girls both ended up as Royal guards to king Wesley Mumbere Iremangoma of the Rwenzururu kingdom. Were they happy? I could not tell considering the circumstances that led to their arrest. Were they content? It appeared so as from their story telling, it was a much better option compared to marriage proposals being before them after dropping out of school.
Their story reminded me of an annual Peace Exposition event in Kasese, Western Uganda that I EmCeed back in November of 2011. The event organized by an International feminist organisation that works in conflicts and post-conflict areas, Isis-Wicce Uganda Chapter focused largely on ending child marriage in the district based on the theme, “The Abused Generation: My child, My Age mate”. However, on the sidelines of this event we got to drive out of the town to called ‘Maliba’ in the same district but outside the main town. “Maliba”, according to a survey done months before the event was recorded as having the “highest number child marriages (between 13 and 17) with the Girl child being used as a form of currency in the area where majority were impoverished”.
As we walked up the mountainous village, there was this one particular girl whose confession to me has since remained stuck in my mind to-date. Jovia (not her real name) at age 14 was carrying a baby. One would have been forgiven for thinking it was her sibling, but the baby was hers. The baby was about a year old and so from my estimates, this girl, still a child herself, had a baby at about 13 years old meaning she conceived before she was 13 (if we take into account her 9 months pregnancy period). The father of the baby at the time (2011) was a 23 year old who largely depended on his relatives most time who also lived in abject poverty, to feed his young family. Her dowry she said was “a goat and waiver of payment for a debt her family owed the husbands family”.
I was in shock – first from the story, then at how she told it with a jolly smile on her face. In between the conversation she was feeding the baby on milk from a sachet of processed pre-packaged milk we had handed her. I kept thinking to myself just much of a child She was and had to become a mother to another child. That was the most pitiful thing I had to witness. In 2011, I had just turned 25 and the thought of having a child at 13 gave me the chills as even at 25, I hadn’t felt ready to give birth to one.
Jovia had no way out, unlike the Female Royal Guards who against the odds tried to avoid “early teenage marriage”. She was stuck in her situation and seemed to have accepted it. Jovia is an example of a Girl child with no choices. Her willingness to proceed with school was minimal at the time even though she seemed to have changed her mind by the end of my conversation with her. Jovia is just one of the millions of girls around the world who today continue to be subjected to unbearable conditions, especially in developing countries.
It was Jovia’s story that inspired me to educate girls from disadvantaged families. Some of them are distant relatives while others are simply girls in need of an education – an education that will help them make informed choices even if they have to make these choices against the will of their parents and guardians. The most important thing here is to help these girls and give them hope that even after being forced into early marriages, they can still pull through to a brighter future with an education that leads to independence. That way they will be able to help those around them.
Kenya just like Uganda, faces the same challenges in rural areas with teenage marriages still very common in some parts of the country. While extreme poverty is blamed on these occurrences, there is great need for shift in mindset of communities and their little regard for Education the Girl Child.
2017’s theme for #DayOfTheGirl is, “The Power of the Adolescent Girl: Vision for 2030”. The year 2030 is the same year that nations hope to have achieved the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Will the girl child then have the power to rise above forced child marriage? Will governments and indeed nations support for quality Education for the girl child be a priority to eliminate gender inequality, alleviate poverty? shall there be no more war and conflict? will delayed justice be a thing of the past? all factors of which play role in the girl child’s challenges? The world’s 1.1 billion girls are a source of power, energy, and creativity – and the millions of girls in emergencies are no exception.
For those not familiar with my story in the last one year, I was arrested in Uganda and released 24 hours later when the Uganda government’s security detail engaged in gunfire exchange with the Rwenzuru kingdom in Kasese, Western Uganda in what came to be popularly termed “The Kasese Killings”, where I happened to be for my traditional wedding. Read more by searching and reading through the hashtags #KaseseKillings #FreeJoyDoreen online.