It was March 2020, and all the schools were closed. Masiko* and her family were barely managing to make ends meet. As the weeks passed and the lockdown – put in place to control the spread of COVID-19 – continued, Masiko’s father became more desperate. He decided to marry off his 14-year-old daughter in exchange for food to support the rest of his family. And so Masiko went to live with her 47-year-old husband.
The lockdown that had pushed her family further into poverty also made it difficult for Masiko to report what had happened: she had no phone and transport was limited. Before lockdown, she had participated in a Raising Teenagers Uganda School Club, and she called for help a month after her marriage, on a phone borrowed from a neighbour.
At first I did not understand who was calling. I begged her to stop crying and first tell me who she was. “My name is Masiko from Matugga. My father married me to some old man. I need to get out of here,” she said. It was a very painful conversation. She was being forced to have sex with her husband and felt that nobody in his family cared about her wellbeing.
After hanging up, I contacted the local council leader and told him about the case. I directed him to Masiko’s family home so he could find out where she had been sent. Masiko’s father was not ready to have his daughter brought back home, so we got permission from the Residence District Commissioner to drive to her village to talk to him. At first he was not cooperative, but when the police were mentioned, he started to talk. He told us they never had enough food during lockdown, and that was why he had negotiated the marriage of his daughter. He received posho (maize flour), beans, rice and 150,000 Uganda Shillings (about US$40). By the time we spoke, the food was already gone.
The same day, we reported the case to the police and took an officer with us to find Masiko. When we got there, she was outside washing utensils. She was delighted to see us and to go back to her family home. Her husband was arrested for marrying a minor.
When she returned home in June 2020, Masiko was seven weeks pregnant. Her father – now more conscious of the law on child marriage – has promised never to make her marry again. She is attending Raising Teenagers Uganda’s arts and crafts economic empowerment training with other girls and adolescents in her community. She is also determined to go back to school as soon as it reopens. She wants to be a nurse.
We check in with Masiko monthly to ensure that she is safe. We also offer her guidance and encouragement, so that she knows she does not have to give up on her dreams.
*Name changed to protect her identity
If you would like to know more about how humanitarian crises – including those resulting from disease outbreaks, conflicts, generalised violence and natural hazards – put girls and adolescents like Masiko at increased risk of child marriage, then take a look at the Girls Not Brides brief on the issue. It highlights good practice – including examples from our membership – in preventing and responding to child marriage in such contexts, and offers recommendations for donors, governments, UN agencies, and community-based and civil society organisations.
In the time it has taken to read this article 5 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds
Hope Nankunda leads the team at Raising Teenagers Uganda, working to promote girl child education and contribute to ending child marriage in the country. They mainly focus on creating safe spaces for young people to open up and speak about the issues affecting them, both at school and at home. Their School Clubs have continued to support girls through the COVID-19 pandemic, though they have not been able to meet with girls as often due to lockdown and school closures.