KAMPALA–The minimum legal age for marriage in Uganda is 18 and any one below that is considered a minor, and defilement of a minor is a serious offence, punishable by imprisonment of up to 25 years.
But Caroline Mukit was 7 when she was married off by her father.
It sounds like a scene from Uganda’s rural districts still held up in tradition, when early marriage was customary, especially for girls, but teenage brides were supposed to remain at school.
But after sensing her father was serious, Caroline now 14 decided to flee home and took refugee at her aunties’ home.
“My father said he needed to benefit [from my bride price] to look after my other five siblings, and that they needed to get food for the family, so he had to give me away for marriage at the age of seven because I was the eldest in the family,” Caroline said.
Mukit says even when she insisted that she wanted to complete her education in order to buy for her father cows and every other thing he wanted, the father did not accept.
My father just said: “You are five and you are the eldest. I need cows, I need food for the family.”
She says her father wanted to give her away at the age of seven without her consent and knowledge of her mother.
Mukit says she decided to take off because of fear of being forced to get married to a total strange old enough to be her father.
She attributed cases of child-marriages in Amudat to biting poverty, limited access to education facilities and cultural practices that encourage early marriage.
Mukit says she is not the only one in this part of the country who has been forced into marriage by her father but that there are many more others married off and staying with men.
The former district councilor for Amudat [Amudat town council], Becky Acocor, said the tradition in Amudat [Pokot] allows the husbands to give out girls and that lack of education was still the biggest issue affecting the Pokot who are still stuck in their tradition.
“Amongst the Pokot, the tradition allows families to marry their daughters at young ages without their consent. Many families perceive a girl child as a source of wealth, and would rather give the girl into marriage to raise funds for educating the boy child. So marrying off young girls is a tradition here,’ Acocor said.
She adds that in this part of the country, a girl is usually trained in doing the chores, being obedient, and is kept a virgin, in order to be traded highly without her consent.
According to statistics from the Uganda demographic and health survey 2011, early and forced marriages are common in Amudat district, where the incidence of early pregnancy and under-age marriage is estimated at about 46 percent among teenage girls,
The report adds that most girls are given away before making the age of eighteen; “this means that one out of every four girls is most likely to be married off by the age of eighteen,”
When she fled marriage, Mukit has beaten all odds to get back to school by the help of her auntie.
She is now in Primary six at Katekit primary school in Amudat.
She says her auntie provides everything; uniform, Pads, food and everything else.
“I want to continue with Education but I need help because my auntie does not have everything, I need support and what I can say is that I want to continue with Education until I finish,” Mukit said.
She says her only hope for a brighter future lies in education such that she can fight for child-rights.
“I want to become a lawyer so that any person who refuses her child from going to school will just go to go to court or enter in jail and stay there. Yes, he has to go there, why does he rufuse girls from getting their future, he wants us to suffer like there is no education,” a rather bitter Mukit said, before breaking down.
The Amudat Education Officer, Benson Ogi, confirms that cases of men marrying off children are common and that there are over 200 children who have run away from their homes over domestic violence against children.
Mr Ogi says the district is already expanding prevention programmes that empower girls at risk of child marriage and address the root causes underlying the practice.
“And most children who run away from schools end up at army detaches, are picked by police and these are transferred to Karasi girls’ and boys’ schools to continue their education,” said Mr Ogi.
Ms Rose Mary Nawout, the Amudat Woman Member of Parliament said child marriage jeopardizes girls’ rights and stands in the way of girls living educated, healthy and productive lives.
“It also excludes girls from fundamental decisions, such as the timing of marriage and choice of spouse and girls living in rural areas of the developing world are twice as likely to be married before age 18 as their urban counterparts, and girls with no education are over three times more likely to do so than those with secondary or higher education,” Nawout said.
According to statistics from the Population secretariat 2015 of the that the 1.2 million pregnancies recorded in Uganda annually 25% of these are teenage pregnancies, this means more than 300,000 teenagers who get pregnant also account for the bulk of the unwanted pregnancies which end up in un wanted births or abortions.
Caroline says she is among the few luck ones but thinking about the plight of hundreds of girls living in what she describes as modern slavery, she gets so depressed.
Caroline who is now saved and living with her auntie says “I have forgiven my father but he must stop the habit of marrying off children,”
The LCV chairman for Amudat, Francis Kiyonga, said there was need to aid girl-child in this part of the country to uplift the standard of women and enable them take decisions that affect their lives.
“Educate a woman and you educate a nation, so the African saying goes. We must all agree and help our girl-child here,” Kiyonga said.