For two months, this man reportedly sexually abused his ‘wife’. If Uganda is to reduce rate of child marriages we see reported in the media, it may require collective responsibility.

A 2013 World Vision study ranked Uganda 16th among 25 countries with the highest rate of child marriages, with 12% of girls marrying before they have reached the age of 15 and 46% being married off before they turn 18.

An 11-year-old girl from Karamoja region who was forced into marriage by her father last year wouldn’t have managed to escape from the nightmare she experienced if her community had not intervened.

For two months, this man reportedly sexually abused his ‘wife’ which led her to bleed profusely as she endured constant pain in her abdomen. Her mother was against her forced marriage but the girl’s father did not hesitate to give her away without considering her future.

It’s difficult to stomach the fact that the suitor simply had to buy alcohol for the child’s father and uncles to take her way.

And just like that, all her dreams of growing up to become a professional nurse floated out of the window as she now had to concentrate on being a housewife. And her mother-in-law had shamelessly assured her that her most important role in the marital home was “during the night, in the bedroom”.

It was the onset of misery in the young wife’s life. She was living like a slave.

“I was forced to be a wife as he [husband] locked me inside his hut all the time, fearing I may escape. Thank God I managed to do so one day,” she says.

But even after fleeing, her husband tried to take her back. Drama ensued as the girl fought and screamed, attracting a crowd that intervened and called police who arrived at the scene and arrested the man.

This girl survived but not many are as lucky.

Others suffer silently and worse, some even die during labour or develop conditions like fistula as their bodies are not developed well enough for child bearing.

Activists fighting for the rights of children and women rights say that in order to achieve the newly developed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by UN member countries to be achieved by 2030, girls need to get proper education.

They cannot get access to that urgently required education when they’re being married off way before their time. Another even more critical concern is whether once these perpetrators are arrested justice can finally be attained.

For this, organizations like Equality Now, Mifumi, World Vision Uganda, Joy for Children and Uganda Christian Lawyers Fraternity recently met at a conference at Lake Victoria Hotel, Entebbe to find solutions to ending child marriages.

“Uganda has a constitution and laws that ban child marriages but the country is still far from success. Government should come up with a uniform decision concerning early marriage laws. For example when a 16-year-old girl is married off with consent from her parents, you might find it difficult to win the case as they can cite cultural laws. Our girls should be sensitized about their same rights as boys to attend school instead of keeping them at home to perform home chores like fetching water and taking care of their siblings when their mums go to markets. When they get exposed to new ideas at school, they will learn that it’s their right to marry at the right age and to the right partner.”

While the number of girls forced into marriage is still rising, government has not done enough to put in place medical facilities to handle cases of minors in labour. In the end many have died while giving birth at the hands of traditional birth attendants who lack qualified health personnel. We have lodged a case in the Constitutional Court regarding polygamy because it affects the rights of young girls as well as those of women. Government should put in place a legal framework that puts a child where they belong. Empower them go for studies without fear of child marriages but instead plan to be future model mothers who will become independent ladies.”

There are many laws in the country but they are not implemented, which leaves defilers free. Lack of registration of births in many communities also poses a big challenge as we find ourselves failing to prove ages of some of these girls. You find they don’t even possess at least an immunization card or baptism card and their parents insist on mature ages where we cannot show proof. Because of poverty, some of these young girls become comfortable in their new marriages and connive with their families to lie about their age. Our meeting here with a number of organizations plus legal teams will help us find appropriate laws that can help to end child, early and forced marriage. Maybe if a gender syllabus from nursery to university is put in place, it can help in making communities understand their rights better.”

“The biggest challenge in ending child marriages is the deeply entrenched cultural belief that a girl’s place is in the home and that no matter her accomplishments, her ultimate purpose in life is to be a wife and mother. There is likely to be very little investment, if any, in developing a girl’s value outside marriage. From very early on, a girl is socialized to excel in marriage – to be a good cook, unquestioningly obedient, and to leave all the ‘big’ decisions to the man. This is what people mean when they ask for a hefty bride price to ‘appreciate’ the parents of the girl for bringing up a ‘well-behaved girl’.  One might ask oneself therefore if there is any value in educating a girl who will not use that knowledge to run a home; or what the point is of delaying the marriage and risk having the girl impregnated by some village boy who would not afford her bride price in the first place. Why not give her away now when she is still young and unblemished and ‘well-behaved’?”

George Musisi (Legal officer – Foundation for Human Rights Initiative)

“Uganda has made strides in laws around the country but do we have laws that benefit the girl child who is forced in an early marriage? Very few forced marriages cases are won. Unfortunately, there are very few police officers involved in child and family protection units that understand laws governing this issue and hence a need for more sensitization. Many parents also don’t understand how these laws work and instead of reporting to courts of law they negotiate for compensations from defilers.”

Vicent Mutonerwa (Juvenile Justice Office – Uganda Lawyers Fraternity)

“Let government put in place measures where defiled girls are given security while cases still go on in courts. Because many parents are involved in forcing them into marriage, when they appear in courts these girls fear to give the required evidence against them. A centre should be constructed where they can be accommodated as prosecution continues. At times their fathers threaten to chase them away from home. As the men involved in marrying these young girls are sent behind bars, the parents too should be punished.”

Jean Paul Murunga (Equality Now – Kenya)

“Who is responsible for caring for girls who have ran away from these marriages especially where the courts of law have not been involved? Sensitization should be included in their curriculum so that young girls get to know their rights and where to report in case their families force them to marry. Government should also set up a place for them to stay when they take them back to school. The same sensitization should be extended to the communities to allow them get change what they refer to as their ‘cultures’.”

Judy Kosgei (Regional Communications Officer – Equality Now- Africa)

“One way of investing in girls is by providing them with education. When you force them into early marriage this will not be achieved. We badly need the media to play this important role in relaying our concerns to all concerned parties but how do we deal with them? The court language is difficult so when communicating to journalists drop the jargon because they may end up dropping your story over failure to understand what you mean.”

Moses Ntenga (Executive Director – Joy for Children Uganda)

Rampant poverty and domestic violence are some other issues driving these young girls into marriage. Some villages lack schools, forcing these girls to walk long distances for studies. Along the way they are enticed by boda-boda men and taxi conductors who give them rides to school as their parents are too poor to offer them transport money. It becomes worse in case parents separate due to tension in their homes. They will run into early marriage to escape from unstable homes.”