By Humphrey Nabimanya
Child marriage remains one of the silent evils in Uganda today. So silent that many young girls are being married off openly and while the communities turn their heads in oblivion.
Today, the statistics from the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (UDHS) from 2011, paint a glaring picture. They state that 46 percent of girls marry before they reach 18 years.
This means that one out of every four girls is most likely to be married off by the age of eighteen.
The same statistics, also reveal that over 15 per cent of married women between the ages of 20-49 were married by the age of 15, and 49 per cent were married at 18 years.
Drivers to such alarming statistics are many; they range from poverty, limited access to education for girls, traditional and social norms which dictate that girls should marry young so as to be ‘good mothers’ and ignorance on risks associated with marrying girls at an early age.
The magnitude of child marriage consequences are equally sad most especially to girls. From sexually transmitted diseases, leaving school early and psychological trauma, the future of teenage girls remains at crossroads.
Another terrible consequence of child marriage is teenage pregnancies.
The Population Secretariat indicates that of the 1.2 million pregnancies recorded in Uganda annually, 25 per cent of these are teenage pregnancies.
This means that more than 300,000 teenagers who get pregnant also account for the bulk of unwanted pregnancies, which end up in unintended births or abortion.
Regionally, teenage pregnancy rates are overwhelming. According to the National Strategy to End Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy, the rates are high in Northern Uganda (59%), followed by Western (58%), Eastern (52%), East Central (52%), West Nile (50%) and Central (41%).
On the other hand, findings from a study conducted by Guttmacher Institute on unintended pregnancy and abortion in Uganda, indicate that Mubende District is said to be among the districts with a high number of teenage mothers with nearly one in every three households recording a teen that has got pregnant or has had a child!
This is alarming because many girls are being deprived of opportunities to have a better future compared to their male counterparts. At such a time, girls do not have a say in marriage and are prone to violence from their partners.
Uganda should be on the other hand applauded for playing a part in ending these evils.
In June this year, Uganda launched the National Strategy to End Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy and not forgetting the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda which sets the age of marriage to be 18 years and above.
A lot remains to be done. We need to move beyond legislation and ensure that laws around early marriages are implemented. We need to also adopt a community based approach where we raise awareness in communities about dangers of child marriage.
We recognize the importance of working directly with the target groups as they are the ones who know best what their needs are and what works and what does not work for their communities.
Involving communities and young people that are affected by the issues, Reach A Hand, Uganda a youth lead organisation in partnership with UNFPA and support from the Ministry of Health is moving out to the districts of Mubende, Moroto, Gulu, Butaleja, Kanungu and Katakwi to conduct community dialogues under the End Child Marriage (ECM) programme made possible by partnership with UNFPA and support from the Ministry of Health..
The goal of the project is to accelerate reduction of child marriage by at least 10 per cent for the next five years.
Key strategies to achieve the goal include; empowerment of the girl child as an individual; increasing access to information and services for the girl child; creating a favourable and protective social and legal environment for the girl child. This will eventually help in realization of equality and equity among all sexes.
The writer is Team leader and founder, Reach A Hand, Uganda.