Child marriage is a distressing reality that continues to plague our world, particularly in the poorest countries. Unfortunately, Uganda is no exception to this tragic phenomenon. The prevalence of poverty in Uganda has contributed to the perpetuation of child marriages, which not only robs young girls of their childhood but also denies them the opportunity to pursue education and achieve their full potential. Disturbingly, some children in Uganda are not only forced into early marriages but are also subjected to the horrific trauma of being married off to their rapists.
Despite the existence of laws in Uganda that prohibit child marriage, the country still grapples with this pressing issue. It is disheartening to mention that laws that previously allowed customary and religious marriages for girls under the age of 18 were declared unconstitutional in February 2023. These laws, although invalidated, had played a significant role in perpetuating the child marriage crisis in Uganda. The dire poverty and lack of opportunities in the country have further compounded the problem, resulting in child marriage rates that remain alarmingly high.
In the eastern region of Uganda, child marriage is particularly prevalent, with over 50% of girls being married off before reaching the age of 18. This harrowing statistic is a stark reminder of the urgent need for decisive action to protect the rights of these vulnerable children. While the government of Uganda has made commendable efforts to combat child marriage, it is evident that more needs to be done to eliminate this grave violation of human rights.
The region of Karamoja, located in northeast Uganda, is one of the poorest areas in the country and serves as a glaring example of the devastating impact of child marriage and its associated atrocities. In a heart-wrenching article published by The Guardian, the lives of women living in Karamoja are laid bare. Here, the term “courtship rape” is used to describe the rampant and violent behavior that plagues this area. Tragically, this form of violence has become distressingly normalized, with one Karamojong woman recalling, “Everyone gets married like that.”
It is essential to shed light on the horrifying practices that take place in Karamoja. In some instances, family members are complicit in the abduction and forced marriage of young girls. They hold victims down or actively aid in planning the abductions. The modus operandi of these abductions involves forcibly taking a young girl from her home, dragging her to the perpetrator’s residence, subjecting her to rape, and then keeping her hostage for several days. The intention is to force the victim to accept her fate, rendering it psychologically and socially impossible for her to return to the life she once had.
The existence of such abhorrent practices is a grave injustice against the innocent children of Uganda. It is a harsh reminder of the urgent need for both national and international bodies to work collaboratively to address this issue. Stronger enforcement of existing laws, coupled with comprehensive awareness campaigns and initiatives aimed at eradicating poverty and gender-based violence, are paramount.
In this particular region of Uganda, it has been observed that children often discontinue their education when their mothers are no longer able to accompany them. Additionally, it is not uncommon for young girls to relocate from their parental dwelling to a communal hut designated for girls. Regrettably, it is within these huts that girls are subjected to raids and coerced into engaging in sexual activities during the night. In instances where the boys are unsuccessful, they await the girl’s presence on her way to school or the market. Consequently, school becomes the sole sanctuary where many girls feel secure.
Addressing the issue of child marriage is considered a sensitive matter in Uganda, as the practice persists in silence. Despite the legal age of marriage being set at 18, UNICEF reports that approximately 46% of Ugandan women are married before reaching this age.
The question arises as to why child marriages persist. It is a common occurrence in Uganda for policies and new laws to go unnoticed by the general public, as many local individuals are unaware of the laws outlined in the constitution due to a lack of translation into their local language.
Fortunately, there are various organizations striving to alter the perception of child marriage within Uganda. UNICEF’s “Girls Education Movement,” initiated in 2001, adopts a child-centered and girl-led approach, with a focus on empowering girls through education. In the Bundibugyo district of western Uganda, “Save the Children Uganda” has implemented a project specifically targeting areas with high occurrences of child marriage, effectively mobilizing other non-governmental organizations.
Another notable group, “Raising Voices,” aims to provide marginalized girls with access to education and ensure their continued enrollment. The “Girls Not Brides Empower Project” educates communities on the perils of child marriages, while also economically empowering vulnerable families, with the ultimate goal of keeping girls in school.
It is crucial to recognize that child marriage deprives girls of their fundamental rights to health, education, security, and the freedom to choose when and whom they marry.