SAKABUSOLO, Uganda – Margaret was 15 when her parents told her she was getting married. Her future husband was a 36-year-old farmer from her home village of Sakabusolo, in southern Uganda. She begged her parents to let her stay in school, but they said they needed the dowry money. The groom paid them $80.
It didn’t take long for Margaret to realize her husband was a violent alcoholic. After six months of rape and beatings, she got pregnant. “The best part of becoming a mom is having someone to play with,” says the teenager, who has just turned 16 and still wears her school uniform skirt. But the birth of their son did not temper her husband’s mood swings. So, one day, after a particularly brutal beating, Margaret packed a small bag, tied her baby to her back and fled to her elder sister’s home.
Like Margaret, 40 percent of Ugandan women get married before the age of 18 and 10 percent are wives by the time they turn 15. Child marriage forces tens of thousands of girls to drop out of school and increases their risk of poverty, domestic abuse and health problems related to early pregnancy.
Child marriage is common practice in many sub-Saharan countries, but Uganda’s government is one of the few trying to stop it. The minimum age for marriage has been set at 18 since 1995, but the law is difficult to implement because most marriages are unregistered. That’s why, in 2015, the Ministry of Gender and Labor launched the National Strategy to End Child Marriage – a comprehensive plan formed in collaboration with UNICEF that features data collection, countrywide advocacy and civil society partnerships.
“Empowering girls is key to Uganda’s prosperity and social economic transformation,” says Lydia Wasula, communications officer for the Ministry of Gender and Labor. Since the launch of the national strategy, more than 71,915 girls have taken part in awareness programs that consist mostly of voluntary workshops on sexual health and reproduction. Meanwhile, 6,420 community leaders – from priests to teachers – have pledged their collaboration and UNICEF has experienced a sharp increase in calls to their child protection hotline.
Still, the percentage of children getting married is stubbornly consistent. Social awareness might be on the rise, but experts warn the main push factor, poverty, is not receding fast enough. Neither are patriarchal cultural norms. Harriet Akullu, child protection specialist for UNICEF Uganda, says social customs “are still hindering the implementation of national laws at the local level.”
Margaret’s best friend, Mary, is also a young mother, but she still lives with her 42-year-old husband. They met when she was 16, during Christmas break. As an orphan, Mary hoped getting married would bring her security, but all she got was abuse. “I think of leaving him every time he beats me,” she says, “but I need money for my baby.” Her eyes fill with tears as she breast-feeds her 7-month-old daughter.
For Benard Serunyigo, the solution is obvious: jobs. As the director of operations for the local NGO Uganda for Her, Serunyigo works to empower young girls through education and vocational training. “We can’t just tell child brides to run away,” he says. “We need to give them somewhere to run to.”
To that end, his organization sets up safe spaces for teen mothers in rural communities where they can air their fears and plan their futures. Once the young mothers have identified their professional aspirations, Uganda for Her provides them with the training to get them started. Many of them want to become hairdressers, but the undecided ones can learn how to sew menstrual pads as a way to gain financial independence while they search for their calling.
But providing job opportunities doesn’t address a more fundamental problem: how to identify at-risk girls before they get married. In the slums of Kampala, the local non-profit Kids Club may have found a solution. Instead of relying on outside intervention, they are building referral mechanisms through youth leadership clubs. “Every context is unique,” says the NGO’s founder, Samuel Wambayo. “So we need to find advocates from the community.”
Kids Club runs after-school teen programs in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where students organize and meet to discuss their concerns around issues like marriage. This is how Brenda was rescued. When the 13-year-old stopped attending school, members of her meet-up found out her mother wanted to marry her off. Early detection allowed Wambayo to intervene and change the mother’s mind. “You can’t protect children from a distance,” Wambayo says. “You need to be physically there.”
Vocational training and local youth networks promise to be more effective than educational pamphlets, but they are also more expensive. And the funds allocated by the government and UNICEF two years ago to fight child marriage in the country are fast running out.
Akullu, from UNICEF, says “long-term funding is very limited and does not match the high level of vulnerable adolescents.” But Wambayo argues it’s just a matter of re-allocation. “Instead of holding policy conferences in expensive hotels, we should spend the money in the communities,” he says.
Meanwhile in Sakabusolo, Uganda for Her is setting up a hairdressing course for its teenage mothers. Margaret is already dreaming of all the things she’ll be able to do when she gets a job, like buying a mobile phone. Her sister doesn’t let her have one – she says she’s too young.