The impacts of COVID-19 make it more critical than ever to address child marriage in Uganda
More than 34% of girls are married before their 18th birthday every year in Uganda, and 1 in 10 is married before turning 15. Child rights organisations working within the Girls Not Brides Uganda National Partnership, warn that the rate of child marriage in the country is rising due to school closures, food insecurity, and economic uncertainty triggered by COVID-19.
We already know that global crises impact girls disproportionately, and can exacerbate the drivers of child marriage. As lower income households face increased pressure on food and resources, for example, they may see marrying their daughters as an option to both relieve that pressure and give them a better life. Girls Not Brides Uganda member organisations report a particular increase in child marriage in marginalised communities due to the restrictions brought in to slow the spread of COVID-19. More often than not, girls in these circumstances are also at greater risk of sexual violence and unintended pregnancy.
With the emergence of the global pandemic earlier this year, the need to raise awareness of child marriage in the country has become even more critical, as girls kept out of school are more vulnerable to the practice, and married girls are less likely to return to school and complete their education. Girls Not Brides Uganda member organisations are working to raise awareness of the issue across the country, with a particular focus on harnessing the power of the media and religious and traditional leaders to influence public debate.
“Actually, parents thought it would be a normal holiday and there seems not to be a ground plan at the family level for preparedness to manage the children.” Kyegegwa Senior Education Officer
Since early 2020, the National Partnership has been accelerating efforts to end child marriage in five districts which already had high rates of child marriage: Kamwenge, Kiryandongo and Kyegegwa in Western Uganda; and Arua and Yumbe in Northern Uganda. These districts also host refugees, and the pandemic has hit already fragile local economies hard. Official reports indicate at least 48 cases of child marriage between the start of the pandemic and the end of July in Kyegegwa district alone, and a grassroots response – including partnering with a range of stakeholders – is critical to addressing child marriage in the context of increased risk to girls.
School closures and lockdown restrictions mean that girls are kept at home and families that were already under pressure have struggled to earn an income. As a result, many families have sent their daughters to work, exposing them to greater risk of sexual violence. In many cases, unintended pregnancy as a result of sexual abuse can lead parents to marry girls off. According to data from a probation and social welfare official in Kyegegwa, there were approximately 5,000 adolescent pregnancies reported in 2019. Of these, 1,500 girls were forced to marry.
It is already hard for girls to access the protection of the law, and lack of resources means that parents are increasingly negotiating financial settlements with offenders rather than the police or are intentionally withholding official documentation – such as birth certificates – which would prevent child marriage and allow girls access to justice. Social norms and beliefs mean that adolescent pregnancy and sexual activity outside of marriage is not accepted.
“Even if you want to follow up a case, sometimes it’s very hard because someone in the community may be willing to help but the parent is not willing to give any information.” Development Foundation for Rural Areas (DEFORA) staff member
At the community level, Joy for Children Uganda – along with five partner organisations – are focusing efforts on raising awareness of the importance of girls’ education, and the impact of child marriage on girls’ futures and the community as a whole. They are supporting this through engaging with the media to shape public debate and bring attention to the issue throughout the country.
As COVID-19 continues to further destabilise already strained economies, strategies to prevent gender-based violence and centre the needs of girls and women must be prioritised, – not only to address child marriage, but to build greater resilience and a sustainable and more equitable future for all.
Girls Not Brides Uganda is committed to accelerating change to end child marriage through partnering with key stakeholders including government, families and communities, civil society organisations and cultural and religious leaders. The partnership includes over 80 organisations, and support a range of activities that target policy implementation and financing to support girls.
This project was made possible thanks to players of the People’s Postcode Lottery (PPL).