KAMPALA – Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic early this year 2020, Uganda was working steadily in her efforts to deliver on several international obligations regarding sexual and reproductive health amongst girls and young boys. However, the closure of schools in March as a result of COVID-19 pandemic, although a good intervention in itself, has had a big impact in the area of sexual and reproductive health for girls mainly. This is because schools play a very big role in protecting girls from a lot of sexually related crimes that are ever present in our communities.
According to the UN and our own observations at The Hunger Project in Uganda, if girls complete their entire primary and secondary education cycle in school, this alone reduces their chances of catching HIV by 50 percent. Staying in school further insulates the girls from many other sexual and reproductive health situations such as early marriage, domestic violence and all other forms of abuse. Schools, therefore, indirectly contribute to more than 70% of the girl’s chances of a good a health productive future.
Now that schools are closed, the responsibility of keeping our children, especially the girls, safe has shifted to the communities.
Unfortunately, information coming up from the first few months of the girls being at home shows that communities have not been doing a good job. Since March when schools were ordered to close, we have seen an increase in cases of child marriage from different parts of the country. We have seen an increase in all forms of abuse targeting the girls such as rape and defilement. Suddenly the number of new HIV infections amongst young people has also started to rise again. This means that as a country we need to scale up efforts in building and providing safety for girls.
UNFPA estimates that the total effect of the COVID-19 pandemic could mean approximately 13 million additional child marriages globally.
For years, The Hunger Project Uganda has invested a lot in building strong community systems that work to protect girls from any form of abuse including early marriages. We have a vibrant network of community animators with local knowledge that are able to identify such abuses when they occur.
The community animators also act as early warning systems against any form of abuse likely to happen to any girl. Communities have the intelligence and are usually in the know of what families may be planning to do. When such abuses are identified, necessary interventions are done to ensure that the girls are protected.
I, therefore, believe that there has never been a moment in time more important than today when all forms of community systems are being called upon to rise up and protect our children especially the girls from any form of abuse.
There are some good community innovations we can borrow from; a case in point is the community of Kalamba Sub County in Butambala district. As a way of dealing with the rampant cases of child marriage in their area, the local community with support from The Hunger Project Uganda and area leaders mobilised and adopted a community by-law through their local council.
The by-law gives communities the power to detect and prevent any form of child marriage by identifying and shaming individuals who continue to engage in this form of abuse. Communities work closely with all local enforcement agencies including the police to ensure that cases are thoroughly investigated and that the victims are protected all throughout.
As we continue the fight against COVID-19, it is every body’s call to ensure that we do not lose the gains that we have labored so much to achieve. The responsibility of keeping our girls safe from any harm should never be left to schools alone.
In order to contribute to attaining the global development goals, specifically goals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,10 and 17, The Hunger Project Uganda through its Women Empowerment program, is implementing Her Choice Project that seeks to create child marriage free communities in 9 Districts of Uganda and Safe Choices for deaf girls in Mbale.
Through Gender Focused Community Led Development (GFCLD), THP-U has invested significantly in building capacity of girls both in and out of school to participate in decision making processes through peer clubs. THPU has also built and supported community systems and structures to provide an enabling environment for girls to thrive and reach their full potential Communities should rise up and be safe zones for all our children during this pandemic. As the Hunger Project Uganda, we are continuing with our advocacy of ensuring safe places for our girls.
Dr Daisy Ndikuno Owomugasho (PhD) is the Regional Director – The Hunger Project Uganda