Fourteen-year-old Jane will not be returning to school in Kitgum District of northern Uganda, even when coronavirus restrictions are eased.
During the lockdown, the Primary Six pupil of Mucwini Primary School in Mucwini Sub-county was allegedly impregnated by a 28-year-old man.
The teenager was given Shs12,000 as initial capital by her mother to start selling sugarcane at a nearby trading centre to supplement the family’s daily income as she waited for the reopening of schools, which were closed on March 19 to curb the spread of coronavirus.
From her sugarcane business, Jane had so far realised a profit of Shs40,000. She had hoped the money would help her and her siblings to buy scholastic materials when schools finally reopen.
“But having been impregnated, this has not only ruined my future but also the trust that my mother had in me,” she narrates as tears roll down her cheeks.
However, Jane is not alone. She is among 2,372 girls impregnated in Kitgum, Ngora, Kyegegwa, Kasese and Lyantonde districts during the lockdown. These figures were obtained from district health and education departments, and the probation and social welfare departments.
At least 128 school girls were married off, with 48 cases registered in Kyegegwa, 60 in Rakai and 20 cases recorded in Kamira Sub-county, Luweero District.
Police records show that 110 girls were defiled in Kitgum, Kiryandongo, Sembabule, Kayunga, Lyantonde and Ntungamo districts.
This is partly attributed to the lockdown that created more redundant time for the learners, who ideally are supposed to be engrossed in the government’s e-learning programme. Here, parents are largely blamed for engaging the pupils into forced labour where men have taken advantage of them.
Going by data from the probation and social welfare office in Kyegegwa, an estimated 5,000 teenage girls were impregnated in 2019. Of these, 1,500 went into forced marriage.
In Teso Sub-region, Ngore District alone, the number of antenatal care visits for teenage girls between January and June this year stands at 2341, according to data from the district health department.
The district health officer, Dr Rose Aliana, says their health facilities helped 531 teenage girls between the ages of 15 to 19 to deliver during the period under the assessment. A survey by this newspaper found that in western Uganda, girls were forced into illegal marriage after waiting for schools to resume in vain while others got married after conceiving.
During a Covid-19 weekly meeting on July 23, at least 48 early child marriage and pregnancy cases were reported in Kyegegwa District.
Mr Augustine Nyakabwa, the district probation and social welfare office, says in one zone (an equivalent of a parish) in a refugee settlement in the district, nine girls were already reported pregnant in May.
“So do you see what Covid-19 has brought us? There are so many children who will not go back to school,” he says.
Mr Hussein Mwesige, the Kyegegwa senior education officer, says Covid-19 has done a disservice to the education department.
“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 both the girl child and everyone,” he says.
Mr Twaha Musoke, the Sembabule District probation officer, says most of the defilement cases are reported in the areas of Lugusulu, Ntuusi, Lwemiyaga, and Mateete sub-counties.
“In just two months, we have registered about 45 cases of defilement in Lugusulu Sub-county,” he says.
In Kayunga, the increasing cases of defilement are blamed on parents who allow young girls to engage in child labour. According to police records, 25 girls were defiled in Kayunga in the past one month.
Poor parenting coupled with greed for dowry, poverty, peer pressure, displacement, adolescent pregnancy, deeply entrenched traditions and views are being blamed for the rising child marriage in Uganda.
In Mayuge, for instance, a 2013 study found that communities perceived girls to be ready for marriage when they develop breasts.
Joy for Children Uganda (JFCU), a child rights organisation, says in some pastoral communities in western Uganda, some weird practice is going on. Girls of 14 years are intentionally given milk for a year to grow their body size so that they are given out for marriage as those of 18 years and above, JFCU executive director Moses Ntenga, says.Ms Agnes Birungi, the Kyegegwa gender officer, acknowledges the district is experiencing high rate of child marriage because of a number of factors.
“Most of the parents here are poor; they don’t have anything to eat, they don’t have anything in their pocket. As a result, they engage their children into forced marriage,” she says.
In Lyantonde, a total of 25 girls aged between six and 14 were defiled, according to a survey commissioned by the department of community based services between March and May. Another 25 young girls were impregnated.
Mr Andrew Timothy Kamugasha, the senior probation officer in Lyantonde, says: “If parents were playing their role well, we would not have registered such cases.”
In Rakai, Mr Joseph Ssendagi, the district probation and welfare officer, says they have recorded 45 and 60 cases of defilement and early marriages, respectively.
In Luweero, Ms Joyce Namigadde, the area probation officer, confirms that more than 20 cases of child marriage and teenage pregnancies have been recorded in Kamira Sub-county alone.
Kasese District chairperson Sibendire Bigogo says teenage pregnancy and early marriage cases are high in Maliba, Bwesumbu, Bugoye, Munkunyu, Kitswamba, Kyabarungira, Buhuhira and Kyalhumba sub-counties.
By Bill Oketch, Cissy Makumbi, Felix Basime, Al-Mahdi Ssenkabirwa, Simon Peter Emwamu, Denis Opoka, Fred Muzaale, Josephine Nnabbaale, Perez Rumanzi, Ambrose Musasizi, Dan Wandera & Robert Muhereza