Sarah Biira is a 19-year-old secondary school student. Clad in a blue skirt and white blouse, she heads to Maliba Secondary School in Kasese District.
However beyond the self-assured smile on Biira’s face, is a story that not many girls in Kasese are able to overcome.
Biira was married off when she was only 13-years-old. “I was in Senior Two when I became pregnant, the man was 25-years-old,” Biira narrates.
“My parents decided since I was pregnant, they would not take care of me. When I asked them where they expected me to go, they said “go look for that man who is responsible”.
Biira was lucky the man, a primary school teacher, accepted responsibility. She went on to live with him and her in-laws in one house where she experienced violence.
“He wanted to pay my father a fine but my parents refused his money saying it was not right.”
In many cases in Kasese, when a girl is defiled, the man responsible pays a fine that is supposed to repay the money ‘wasted’ on the impregnated teenager. Most often after the fine, the girls are married off no matter what age.
Biira’s parents gave her husband one condition, to take her back to school. “They said take your money and take your woman but we want her back in school.”
Biira’s husband agreed to pay her school fees but only when she had given birth to a second child because “he said he wasn’t sure I would return to him after going through school.”
Biira was determined to go back to school. “I told him if it meant having another child with him, I would but I needed to go to school.”
So at 16, Biira had her second child and after that went back to school.
She has two sons who stay with their father and the first born, now six-years-old, also goes to school.
However Biira’s life is a struggle and many times her parents pay the bigger part of the fees.
She lives in a hostel and only sees her husband and children during holidays.
“I am not the only girl who has children at school, we are many but we face a lot of stigma both at school and from the community,” she says.
But the teenager says she knows what difference education will make to her and the children and that stigma will not deter her.
According to new study by Isis-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange (Isis-WICCE), many girls in Kasese are married off between 12 and 17 years old.
The study, carried out in Bukonzo East and Busongora North, involved 304 respondents (291 girls and 13 boys).
The children included those who were married, those that had divorced and those who had fled their marriages and gone back to school.
The age of most of the men/boys whom the girls were married off to, ranged from 15 to 80 years.
In another case of teenage motherhood, Jovia, became pregnant in Primary Six and when she was married by the man, she discovered that he was married to two other young girls.
Parents of the girls later reported the case to the police and the man was imprisoned for three months.
His parents had to sell off a half -acre piece of land they had given him to get him out of prison.
However, after his release, the man fled to Kampala and abandoned the three teenage mothers, who are now living with their in-laws.
“This is sexual abuse and it is a setback for economic growth. This kind of a population where a child of 12 is a mother, can no longer be accepted. We must face the culture and ensure women’s rights are respected,” says former Kasese Woman MP Loyce Bwambale.
Police, LCs faulted
Juliet Were, Isis-WICCE lead researcher, says defilement in Kasese has been normalised with the help of the police.
“The police share the fines from offenders with parents and in one case we found the LC1 of the area had married a 14-year-old girl and yet these are institutions that should be protecting rights of girls.”
Ms Were says early marriages coupled with marginalisation of the area, have led to high levels of poverty.
“The Girl child is being used as a form of currency in these areas where four decades of war have left many impoverished,” she adds.
Ms Were says several girls in these marriages reported high rate of violence with and forcible sexual intercourse leading.
“This has a big impact on how Kasese can recover the from effects war.”
Kasese has faced various conflicts with the most recent being the Allied Democratic Forces rebellion from 1986 to 2003.
Despite the loss of lives, property and livelihood, Kasese has seen no proper recovery programmes, either from government or development agencies.
It was just last year that government came up with the Luweero-Rwenzori Development Plan that aims to spend £120 million within five years to support households and ensure social service delivery.
Lack of funds
Ms Bwambale, who is now the first premier in the Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu Kingdom, said lack of funds to implement various policies, has kept the region undeveloped and thus making practices like child marriages difficult to stamp out.
She says the Kingdom would use the study to campaign against child marriages by availing information to families and stakeholders.
Mr Were says: “Early marriage is a reality and a crisis that calls for immediate action and responsive mechanism.”
Unwanted pregnancy: A study by Isis-WICCE, indicates that the main cause of teenage marriages in Kasese were early, unwanted pregnancy with Bukonzo East at 38 per cent and 22.4 per cent in Busongora North.
Poverty: Several girls also stated that they had been forced to marry because their parents were unable to pay school fees.
Bride wealth: Most of the weddings were traditional and in more than 40 per cent of the marriages, dowry had been paid. Paying a fine, according to the research, was the most common way of settling defilement and early marriage issues.
Family planning: Many of the girls interviewed had no access to family planning or information.
Delayed justice: Parents interviewed cited delayed justice in many cases of defilement as the reason they preferred to take fines and marry off their pregnant teenage daughters.