Their voices grew louder and angrier in a heated argument. John Lonangoria and Selina Chemariny were on the verge of a fight as their children watched helplessly from a distance.
The argument was a result of an extremely sensitive matter, marrying off their teenage daughter. Their neighbours in Kagok Village, Loroo subcounty, in Amudat District kept away for fear of meddling in family affairs.
Theresa Cherop, their eldest daughter and reason for the argument arrived as the argument progressed, and realised that her name kept on being mentioned in the argument. She chipped in to call for calm, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.
At only 14 years, her father felt she was ready for marriage. but her mother was opposed to the idea after all, Cherop is just a Primary Seven candidate at Loroo Primary School.
“When I inquired about the matter, my father charged at me with a panga and I had run to the police (of Looro Sub County),” she says.
After narrating her ordeal, she spent the night at the police station under the child protection unit. Police officers swung into action, arresting her father the next day.
The intervention of authorities saw her shift from home to Kalas Girls’ Primary school- a rescue centre for girls- which, for the rest of the year will be a safe haven for her to prepare for Primary Leaving Examinations.
Just like Cherop, many girls in Amudat are forced into marriage at a young age of between 12 and 15. However, to understand the high rate of child marriage which has severely affected girls’ education; one needs to take into account the social and cultural dimensions of the district.
Amudat is located in Karamoja sub-region and is mainly occupied by the Pokot tribe (closely related to Karimojong) who extend into Kenya in an area known as west Pokot. Due to colonial border demarcations, a large chunk of the Pokot area remained in Kenya.
The Resident District Commissioner, Adiamo Ekaju estimates that close to 1.2 million Pokots make up a population in the two countries. However, in spite of the border demarcations, the social and cultural fabric including leadership hierarchy remains intact.
Some of the Pokot are for child marriages because they think only then will one be assured of a virgin bride. For Merab Alosikin who is part of the few emancipated Pokot women living in Amudat District with Kenyan roots, the strong cultural and social fabric in her community sheds light on understanding this.
Alosikin who is the programmes manager at National Association of Women Organisations in Uganda says when one marries a virgin, at least 35 to 40 heads of cattle are expected as dowry.
She notes that some Pokot men consider uneducated girls to be better-groomed for marriage compared to educated ones. In fact, educated Pokot girls find it hard to find marriage partners in their communities largely because they are considered ‘spoilt and non-marriage material.
“Before marriage, the girls must undergo female genital circumcision to prove their womanhood. When a Pokot girl is married off, the co- wife (older wife) takes her under her wing for guidance,” Alosikin says.
“Men are kings here! They don’t even build houses. It’s the woman to build,” she remarks.
The more daughters a man has, the more ‘chiefly’ he is, since girls are viewed as a form of wealth who bring in heads of cattle. This fuels early marriage.
Schools turned rescue centres
Modernity is slowly seeping into Amudat. More girls are shunning early marriage for school, but this has put them at loggerheads with parents who want them circumcised and married off as soon as they hit puberty.
To help them finish school, authorities turned Kalas Girls Primary School into a rescue centre which provides safety to the girls.
The story of every rescued girl at the school remains unique. Some are victims of early and forced marriages, defilement, domestic violence and female genital mutilation.
Since 2008, the school has been a rescue centre for many girls facing gender based violence. Surrounded with a ring of barbed wires and trees, Kalas Girls is located within the precincts of the Kalas Catholic Church in Kalas ward, Amudat Town Council. It is here that girls find sanctuary to finish their primary education and head for secondary education.
There are currently 25 girls at the school aged between eight and 14 years; nine of these girls were rescued by security personnel from West Pokot in Kenya. They had been sneaked across the border to undergo female circumcision.
To help them settle in school, Sr Proscovia Natenge, the head teacher and their caretaker says many of the rescued girls must undergo a process of healing through counselling, prayer and being taught social etiquette.
“We get counsellors to talk, but also listen for them to heal their emotional scars. Some are beaten when they refuse to get married, some spend a month or two in marriage and escape to come and live with us,” she says.
Those who have never attended school undergo remedial lessons until such a time when they can learn with the rest.
The District Education Officer Benton Luke Logiel, says once the girls settle in school, the process of reuniting them with parents is another hurdle. Some parents abandon them, while others curse them.
Through a special district committee and a team of social workers, talk to parents to allow the girls to continue with school.
“During holidays, we let them visit their families but we keep them engaged in school,” Sr Nantege says. “Once you let them to spend the holiday at home, some will never come back!”
Keeping the girls at the school is no mean feat; welfare remains a big issue with the number expected to increase per year.
For long, the school has relied on the district authorities and World Food Programme for feeding and other needs such as sanitary pads.
But a few times, it gets tough. “Sometimes the food is not enough, I am forced to go out of the district to look for additional help. The RDC has been helpful as well,” she says.
Once the girls successfully complete their primary education, Sr Natenge contacts education sponsoring organisations to take them up for secondary education.
The elite among the Pokot are slowly breaking cultural barriers that hinder girl child education.
Dorcus Chelain, the vice chairperson of Amudat District says in 2010 when the district was new , the biggest challenge that the authorities identified was lack of education; as an obstacle to development, with at least 95 per cent of the population being illiterate.
The leading factors were child marriage for girls and child labour for the boys.
Chelain explains that their first task was to develop a back-to-school campaign. “Education was a problem in our region. Many people had not seen its value. We decampaigned Female Genital Mutilation and promoted children rights,” she says.
In 2012, when girls heard about the campaigns, more than 800 of them joined primary school. Boys who had shunned education and were in grazing fields left, and joined school as well.
The district authorities realised many of the girls leaving their homes to start school were, in fact escaping from domineering parents who wanted them circumcised and married off as soon as possible.
It is against this background that the district moved and created rescue centres at various schools.
However, since Amudat forms a larger part of Karamoja sub-region which still faces challenges such as insecurity and food shortages, she says there was a need to partner with local and international NGOs to make the campaign successful.
The district faced severe shortage of funds to lead this campaign, and had to turn to the outside for help.
She mentions that NAWOU, ZOA Uganda, UN Women, UNICEF and World Food Programme (WFP) all came in handy to observe what the district was going through and offer help.
“We formed safe learning committees and during that time, NGOs came together and wrote proposals on FGM and Gender Based Violence,” Chelain says.
Covid-19 presented a new set of challenges for school girls in Amudat with many getting pregnant during their stay at home. Beyond pregnancy, other cases of child abuse and domestic violence were also present.
Statistics presented by ASP Rose Margaret Aduo, the Bukedi Regional Police Child and Family Protection Unit indicate Amudat registered 72 defilement cases between January and July excluding March and May.
While child abuse cases were 53 in the last six month excluding the March. Domestic violence recorded the highest number of cases at 202 reaching its peak in July at 72, excluding the month of March.
However, this is just a fraction of the recorded cases with many going unreported.
Support for the rescued girls
Political leaders and expiry of contracts for NGOs have occasionally watered down the gains made in helping the girls. Chelain says after every election, each new political leader has their own set of priorities, while for NGOs, once contracts expire, the children have nowhere to turn to for school fees and moral support. While at Kalas Girls, the school is overstretched to admit more girls due to resource constraints. With only two secondary schools and no tertiary institution. She urges the government to have a permanent solution to this challenge by constructing a vocational school and more secondary schools to help them acquire skills.
“We want the government to build more rescue schools like those in Kenya,” she remarks.
In Amudat, it remains an uphill task to create a mindset change for many girls rescued from early and abusive marriages. It’s usually a matter of time before some of them vanish from the school to go and find another marriage partner, or get circumcised just so they can fit in society. Therefore, there’s need for concerted effort to end the vice.