Child marriage victim turned society activist

Christine Akello is one of the chief campaigners against early marriage in Abim District. PHOTO/TONY MUSHOBOROZI

What you need to know:

  • Fighting vice:  She was 14 years old and in  Primary Six  when she was plucked out of school and married off. Today, Christine Akello cannot stand early marriage in her home district of Abim, writes Tony Mushoborozi.

Christine Akello was on her way to the farm one morning when she saw a small crowd huddled under a tree by the road. From a far, she thought that maybe a motor accident had happened. But as she got closer, she could clearly tell it was a child marriage in progress. 

The child being given away was Alum, a 14-year-ol girl that Akello knew personally. The girl’s father was standing there with the family of the man that she would soon marry. The two families were flanked by other men, both parties were negotiating the bride price and other technicalities. Presiding over the proceedings was the village chairman whose presence was meant to legitimatise the union. 

Foiled marriage
The 30-year-old mother of five had herself had been a victim of child marriage. She was 14 years old and in  Primary Six  when she was plucked out of school and married off. Now here she was, seeing Alum, at age 14 and in Primary Six, being forced into marriage. This struck a chord  with her. 

Akello was going to do everything possible to make sure the young girl stays in school. She had seen many children forced into marriages all her life, many of whom were from her hilly village of Ayiye in Abim District. But she decided that this would not be one of them. Enough was enough. 

“I approached them and said, ‘you people, I have something to say. Then I said, ‘you chairman, what are you doing’?” she reenacts the scene dramatically.

There was an eerie silence. Her blood was boiling at this point. Everyone turned to look at this audacious intruder. Alum’s eyes locked with Akello’s for a fleeting moment. There was fear in the little girl’s eyes. She had resigned herself to fate but as Akello raised her voice, a sparkle of hope twinkled in Alum’s eyes. She let her hand drop out of the grip of the man that was about to become her husband.

All eyes were on Akello but hers were on the village chairman. “I asked again and the village chairman replied and said that he was here to witness the marriage of Alum. I was stunned. I said, ‘As the chairman of the village, how could you watch as such a young girl is married off? You are abetting a crime! This girl is 14, she should be in school. You are supposed to guide the young people instead of opening a way for their destruction. I then told him that ‘you are going to prison’,” she says.

While they were still stunned into silence, Akello walked off. She went to police where she reported the case. The police listened and  proceeded to  record her statement. While she was still giving her statement, the village chairman arrived, panting, sweating and afraid. 

“Mama Oriono, please don’t do this! Akello, please don’t do this. I don’t support child marriage. I don’t want Alum to be sent off to marriage. What you saw is not what it seemed like. I was just passing by. I had nothing to do with it,” the scared chairman said.   

The police took his statement, in which he denied being part of the conspiracy to marry off a 14-year-old school girl. He promised the police to protect the girl and to report back to them if her parents went ahead and married her off anyway. Akello was dumbfounded by the reversal. She was relieved that the chairman had  a change of heart but she needed to be sure. So she went to Alum’s parents.

“When I reached the home of Alum, I told the parents that I had reported the matter to police and that they shouldn’t dare sending the girl off into marriage. I also relayed information that the police would visit them the next day to get their statement,” she says.

Alum had been listening. And unfortunately, this struck fear in her young heart. She misconstrued this to mean that the police was coming to arrest her. So she fled. That night, while her parents slept, Alum ran to Moro Town where she had an aunt. A few days after she reached Moroto, she called Akello on the phone to inform her that she was fine. 

“I don’t know how she got my number but she called me and thanked me for saving her and wished me well. She told me that she was staying with a trusted aunt and that she was preparing to resume school from Moroto Town,” Akello says. 

Alum is now in Primary Seven. She’s preparing to seat her final exams in a few weeks and she’s still in touch with Akello. 

Community activism
You hear a story like this and it gets you thinking. What kind of woman stands up to the traditions of her own people, customs that have been practiced for generations? Is it not taboo to do so? Is it not frowned upon? How did Akello get here? 

“I am a community activist. This is what I do now,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Four year ago, an organisation called Communication for Development Foundation Uganda (CDFU), came to our village with a campaign called Make Happiness not Violence. I was one of many trainees to join the campaign and, I must say my eyes were opened to the injustices that women and girls encounter in our day–to-day lives. We looked into injustices such as domestic spousal violence and the fact that young girls are forced out of school into marriage by their parents,” she says. 

While she obviously knew this before, the campaign was the eureka moment for her. It was like that moment when the alcoholic realises the dangers of drinking and decides to stop. 

The campaign, which is still ongoing, is paid for by UN Women, a UN  body concerned with gender equality. 

Akello seems compelled to make complicated choices just so she could make her community better. Foiling that child marriage is only one of the many exploits she has done in the last four years.

Ten children and no more

She tells the story of how she was recently called to the trading centre in her community to solve a case of domestic violence. “I arrived to a disturbing scene of a woman whose hands and feet had been tied and she was being beaten by her husband. He was accusing her of cheating on him. His only evidence was that she was denying him sex. 

“As her rebuttal, the woman complained that the man loved sex way too much and that this was a problem to her. She said she had had 10 children and she didn’t want any more. She didn’t want to get pregnant again so the only option was to deny her husband sex,” Akello says. 
Akello told the couple that fighting wouldn’t get them anywhere. She took the woman aside and had a one-on-one with her. 

“I told her, ‘ that you can’t just deny your man sex’. I introduced her to family planning. I told her it was easy to choose a method that suited her so that she could sleep with her man as many times as possible without any worries at all,” she says. 

Akello says the woman listened to her. The two women visited the health centre together and the rest is history. 

“She came to me last week happy and thankful. I also told her to be softer with him so that the man can love her more. Call him ‘Daddy’ because that means  you have put yourself under him. Men love that,” she says. 

Community activism works 
Could it be that community activism works wonders? While you may have never heard of the term before, this is the thought that sticks with you long after talking to Akello.

She seems to be so invested in making her community a better place but what is even more peculiar, the people seem to welcome her leadership. Akello is not alone. Many of the people who have been a part of this campaign, male or female, are doing incredible things to make women’s lives better in Abim. Grassroots activism seems effective. 

“I arrived to a disturbing scene of a woman whose hands and feet had been tied and she was being beaten by her husband. He was accusing her of cheating on him. His only evidence was that she was denying him sex.  Christine Akello says of a case she witnessed.

The crisis
Although the legal age of consent to marriage in Uganda is set at 18, getting married formally or informally before this age is a common practice. Girls are disproportionately affected by this harmful practice; in most cases married to older men.

Progress has been made to end child marriage, but the practice still affects nearly half of all girl-children in Uganda. 

UNICEF global databases, 2020 show that Uganda is home to five million child brides. Of these, 1.3 million married before age 15.