Girls, intellectually disabled pupils most vulnerable in Karamoja

Girls at Acherer Primary School present a skit on girl education. There are many barriers to girl education in Karamoja including child marriages. PHOTOS | GEORGE KATONGOLE

What you need to know:

  • According to UNICEF, a total of 354,736 teenage pregnancies were registered in 2020, and 196,499 in the first six months of 2021. This situation calls for an urgent intervention in vulnerable regions especially Karamoja.

Jacinta Kapel, 18, a Primary Seven pupil of Panyangara Primary School, in Kotido was in Primary Six when schools closed in March 2020. It was during this time that she met a man who told her that he loved her. They had unprotected sex and one year later, she fell pregnant.

“The world got smaller for me. My mother did not like the boy and had slapped him on one occasion when he sensed something was going on. When she knew I was pregnant, she together with my elder brother beat me and chased me from home,” says Kapel.

Her boyfriend has since disappeared and switched off all phone numbers known to her. Kapel does not know where he stays and does not send money for the baby’s upkeep.

When schools re-opened in January 2022, Kapel’s aunt approached the school and she was allowed in class. Her aunt is among the people who have been trained to empower vulnerable children to return to school after the lockdown.

Jacinta Kapel shares her story. The 18-year-old got pregnant during the Covid-19 induced lockdown.

“I was automatically promoted and joined with other breast-feeding children,” she shares.

Panyangara is one of the violence-prone areas in Karamoja trapped between the wanton violence of the raiders and the thuggish tactics of the army.

The primary school is among the schools in Kotido that received training on handling children after the lengthy break including those who were pregnant, married or new mothers.

The school offers a room where caretakers could watch the babies while the young mothers attend class.

“It was not easy at first as my classmates made fun of me but it made me stronger,” she shares.

The teachers are very supportive and so is her mother who sometimes accompanies her to school.

The issues

According to UNICEF, a total of 354,736 teenage pregnancies were registered in 2020, and 196,499 in the first six months of 2021. This situation calls for an urgent intervention in vulnerable regions especially Karamoja which has an à la carte of challenges.

There is low school enrolment estimated at 11 per cent of children in Karamoja, who have accessed education.

Cattle have been an integral part of the nomadic pastoralist way of life for decades. But climate change and the proliferation of small arms has increased the violent competition among rival clans over the dwindling natural resources.

The region has suffered four consecutive years of drought which has left thousands of children suffering from malnutrition and the 90 per cent of the population reliant on food aid.

For many poor families, marrying off their daughters young is a way out of poverty and starvation. Pressure for early marriage has forced many men into cattle raiding in order to gain enough cattle to secure a bride, which can be around 200 cows for uneducated girls.

Conflict and insecurity have had a particularly bad effect on women and children in Karamoja who are often caught up in the raids.

There is a massive shortage of schools in Karamoja, which leaves children having to walk for miles to the nearest one. This, compounded with insecurity because of cattle raiding in their villages, means that many children drop out of school and get a decent meal.

The bridge

Kapel is among the vulnerable children who have benefitted from the intervention by humanitarian organisation, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) with support from Danish partners.

Working with the local government in Kotido, ADRA piloted a project code-named Child Rights to Education and advocacy for Karamoja helping to protect children and get them into schools. The three-year project was piloted in Kotido District.

What ADRA is doing is to provide a culture transformation platform in 10 schools involving parents, cultural leaders and government bodies to break the barriers that hinder enrolment and retention in schools.

Dianah Balaba Sande, the advocacy and public relations officer of ADRA-Uganda, says that the CREAT project is aimed at fulfilling the fourth SDG (SDG4) which is aimed at ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030.

During consultative meetings with stakeholders at Kotido Diocese headquarters, Balaba noted that ADRA wants to see positive changes.

“We want to see equal opportunities for both girls and boys to go to school while we mobilise the people,” Balaba said.

ADRA is providing children in advocacy groups with skills to keep talking about their rights to education and food while making sure they stay in school and have the support of their family.

The schools are provided with seeds and skills for school gardens while families are mobilised through the Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) model to start small businesses so they can continue to afford to send their children to school.

“ADRA believes that if vulnerable communities are supported and equipped with knowledge on how to start income generating activities, they will increase their income and productivity at household level,” Balaba adds.

The agency has also trained children on their rights and teachers on their responsibilities to protect children in schools. 

“We have set up advocacy groups in schools so children can anonymously report any child protection incidents for themselves or their peers,” she adds.


It remains a myth in Karamoja for girls to go to school partly because of the negative perceptions.

Ivan Namona, the deputy Resident District Commissioner Kotido District, notes with concern that Karamoja has “a culture that conflicts with education”.

“The boys look after the cattle while girls are prepared as early as possible for marriage. Therefore, most parents look at immediate benefits of bride price as girls are looked at as a source of wealth and boys security,” he notes.

He notes that it is a common belief among the Karamojong to look at educated women as prostitutes. Even in marriage, an educated woman can be bought for about 40 cows while those that have stuck with the norms can be taken for as many as 200 cows.

Karamoja can be described as a patient with multiple organ failures. 

Apart from the negative perceptions, education in Karamoja is beset by other factors, some environmental, such as high poverty levels hitting 61 per cent, famine, a culture that tolerates gender-based violence and inadequate school structures.

Even then, school enrolment is still low in Karamoja. According to Anjelo Lowari, the District Education Officer Kotido, only 11 per cent of children in Karamoja have access to education.

The boys are traditionally charged with responsibilities such as hunting, raiding/rustling animals and grazing cattle while females undertook household chores.

With their nomadic nature, the boys keep moving from place to place limiting their access to education.

Lowari said that some boys are even punished in a traditional way called Ameto, if they disobey their parents.

The tradition of Ameto is aimed at punishing those accused of violating community laws or principles. Punishments usually involve caning. This system is organised at the village level by the elders.

Luckily for the boys, Ameto today is weaker than it was in the past, mainly because some elders have lost their wealth and influence.

“Karamoja can only catch-up with the rest of the country through education,” Lowari says.


But inclusiveness is another elephant in the room.

According to a UNICEF report of 2014, only 5 per cent of children with disabilities can access education through Inclusive Schools and 10 per cent through special schools. This suggests that most children with disabilities are not able to attend school and that learners with special needs fail to transition from one educational level to another.

According to the Ministry of Education and Sports (2017) some 9,597 pupils enrolled in pre-primary schools (1.6 per cent) have impairments while 172,864 children in primary schools have special learning needs. The most prominent impairments include: mental, hearing, visual, physical, autism and ‘multiple handicaps-deaf and blind.

Despite the need to promote an inclusive education in Karamoja, lack of access coupled with negative attitudes and stigma are major constraints.

Moses Ghinno, the head teacher of Lokitelaebu Primary School in Kotido says they do not have a support system for such learners.

“In our school, we have no one trained to teach them,” she said.

At Acherer Primary School, where efforts are being made by Phoebe Abia, a teacher who joined the school 10 years ago, the progress is limited.

Kotido LC5 chairman, Paul Komol Lotee urged development partners to look at special needs education as a standalone investment to make a real impact.

“Special needs requires funding to ensure more children are enrolled while training teachers and offering them tools to ensure that children with various disabilities are also able to enroll in and attend school,” Lotee said.