Uganda ranks in the sixteenth position globally in the prevalence of child marriage and has the tenth highest absolute number of child brides totalling an estimated five million. Data by UNICEF indicates that as of 2019, about 34% of Ugandan women are married before the age of 18 and 7.3% before the age of 15.
Globally, over 41,000 girls enter child marriages daily, and about 700 million women were married before their 18th birthday by 2014. Without stringent mitigation me in asures, the number of early marriages is expected to increase from 700 million to about 1.2 billion by 2050, according to Jude Otim’s research study on Early Marriages in Uganda: A Comparative Assessment Of Determinants Across Regions.
The scourge of child marriages accelerated amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the health crisis taking an economic toll on most households. The cases skyrocketed as most parents had to find other means of getting money due to loss of income. One way to compensate for the loss of income was to marry off their young daughters.
The same research study shows that child marriage is estimated at 49% in Uganda, one of the highest in the region. Several factors are associated with early marriage, such as; wealth status, education level, residence, age at first sex, age at first birth, age of the household head, religious affiliation, and ethnicity.
According to the UBOS report, the prevalence of child marriages is highest in the WestNile region of Arua and Madi Okollo, followed by the Eastern Region in the districts of Bukwo, kween, Tororo and Western Region Kyegegwa, and lowest in Kampala.
In general, child marriages are among the main barriers to attaining gender equality, equity and development in Uganda. Early marriage is a human rights violation that robs girls of their childhood and deprives girls of their fundamental rights to health, education, development and equality as enshrined in the Ugandan constitution.
Education has been identified as a pivotal tool in fighting child marriages since it enables girls to pursue their dreams and aspirations. There is a high probability that the longer a girl will be in school, the less likely she will get married before the age of 18.
The study also divulged that higher education levels (secondary and higher) were associated with reduced odds of early marriage, which may be attributed to the delay in age at marriage caused by advancement in education.
Role media and education in ending child marriages
At the same time, education can also be complemented by the media. The media plays a role in educating the masses and setting an agenda for public action. News coverage can strongly influence how the public will respond to societal issues.
One strategy the media can use to report child marriages is to move beyond awareness and cover solutions and successes. However, according to the GMMP Report 2020, education-related stories on females do not exceed 30%, as highlighted below.
Investing in girls’ education can tremendously reduce child marriage, consequently lowering poverty in families and communities.
The study finding resonates with the research results noting that education is focal in delaying marriage. In line with this, several strategies to promote education in Uganda, more so girl-child education, have been established.
The relationship between child marriage and education is two-way. Child marriage is one of the leading reasons for school dropout in Uganda. At the same time, girls out of school are exposed to increased risk factors for child marriage.
In general, educating girls equips them with the necessary confidence to make informed decisions about their lives and understand their rights. Educated women are likely to play a critical role in making decisions that touch their lives. Additionally, enlighted girls are more knowledgeable about contraception and their children’s healthcare needs.
Education deters child marriage which makes a girl gain confidence, learn skills and understand her rights. She can earn money for herself and her family and increase her chances of escaping the vicious cycle of poverty. But it’s not enough to only educate the girls. Their families need the education to broaden their horizons and prevent themselves from falling into the trap of evil customs. Parents should promise to educate their daughters rather than promising them an early marriage.
In Tororo, a law was passed seeking to end child marriages on June 18, 2021, and it took effect immediately. The offenders now face up to six months in jail or a fine of 20 currency points. The law also criminalises presiding over any child marriage and denies children access to education in the district.
Strategies that can help curb child marriages include making education mandatory for girls. Additionally, there should be compulsory sex education for girls and promotion of women and girl equity in society regarding service provisions across regions.
Enhancing equal access to good quality primary and secondary education can also eliminate gender gaps in schooling. Relevant stakeholders can also offer economic support and incentives for girls so that their families can counteract the financial motives for child marriage.
There is a need to leverage grassroots connections by mobilising, educating and raising awareness among parents, community members, village elders and religious leaders to address discriminatory gender norms and create new positive norms and opportunities for girls;
Lastly, adolescent girls need to be empowered by providing information, strengthening skills and establishing support networks to enable them to protect their rights, build their futures and actively participate in the development of their community.
The Ugandan government needs to enact different policies and strategies to eliminate culturally harmful practices like female genital mutilation, bride price and pride embedded in the early marriage of the girl child in the rural areas.