Heroes must be safe walking to school

Author: Atuki Turner. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • ...we can’t avoid looking at child marriages and teenage pregnancies. 

I sip my early morning tea at my balcony overlooking the small patch of woods. The woods used to be thicker but development has taken over and a marram road now cuts through the forest.

At the spot where once an exotic shrub with blue flowers stood, I am now resigned to watching boda boda men alight from their bikes to take a short health break and I feel as though they’re urinating on me.

The fish pond that once snaked its way across the forest is now choked with hardcore and sand to give way to new high-rise flats. Trucks roar to the new construction site raising dust, from 5am to well past midnight. This, they say, is development and we must put up or shut up.

As I struggle to make sense of the tension between development and disruption, against the private and the public, I look to my north star to provide me with a moral compass. What does one hold onto as dear in life, no matter what?

Ugandan women and women leaders seem to have decided that a women’s bill of rights is important to us. Often, despite being stifled, the bill resurfaces in Parliament, wearing new clothes, espousing a new name, dressed glamorously or modestly, but whether it is wearing a gomesi or a mini skirt, it is still our dear old friend – the Domestic Relations bill.

Tororo Woman MP Sarah Opendi  has kitted out the Bill this time in traditional but severely brave attire (See Monitor July 22,) citing harmful practices such as child marriage, bride price and polygamy.

As we struggle to make sense of the good and bad in society, we can’t avoid looking at child marriages and teenage pregnancies. There must be something wrong with policy and practice. We can’t just blame the Covid-19 pandemic because lockdowns happened all over the world and it did not result in the same high levels of teenage pregnancies.

We need to examine religious, cultural and societal practices that can allow this to happen. For instance, NBS (June 16 – Day of the African Child) reported a growing phenomenon in Iganga known as Night Fund Raising and spreading to outlying districts, where girls are encouraged to perform exotic dances for money which leads to child sexual abuse and exploitation.

I was in  Iganga last week to visit our Heroes programme and the 30 or so teenage mothers I met with did not resemble heroes at all. Many of them dismissed the idea of returning to school.

At school, the hostility and stigma drive many such girls away. In Sebei, it was more unsettling. Girls in Bukwo walk long distances to the few schools, down and up valleys known as lower belt, middle belt and upper belt.

In the lower belt, even police fear to interfere with offenders and girls are apparently raped on their way to school. I found the same story in Iganga.

That is why the Heroes for Gender Transformative actions (Heroes4GTA) , a consortium of Amref-Uganda, CordAid, ICRW and MIFUMI in partnership with the Dutch Embassy are launching the Back at School and Safe as a campaign to protect girls.

Society needs to view women and girls differently which is why Ms Opendi’s modestly dressed Bill is welcome.

It will change policy and influence practice. Girls are our future but by halting their progress, we are already dipping into the nation’s savings, and when we defile, rape and marry them off, we are plundering the nations reserves.

Ms Turner Atuki is the  executive director  at  MIFUMI

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