Scholastica Nacap walked barefoot for 60km, across dangerous mountain terrain in north-east Uganda, to avoid getting married. She was just 13. Orphaned at nine, she was told by her father’s relatives she must marry a much older, wealthy man, so Nacap ran.
“I had to escape. I couldn’t accept [becoming] a wife and mother at 13,” she says.
Five years on Nacap is back in Karamoja, this time leading the way in the fight against early marriage and child pregnancy in this remote region. Child marriage is common in Karamoja, which has a population of about 1 million people, mainly pastoralists, scattered across 27,900 sq km of semi-arid terrain.
“Change is a gradual process that takes time,” says Alain Sibenaler, Uganda’s representative of the UN population fund, UNFPA. “However, through awareness-raising and community engagements, communities are beginning to appreciate the need to invest in education.”
Globally, an estimated 12 million girls are married before they turn 18. A report by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and the World Bank concluded that child marriage costs nations billions and destroys life prospects for girls.
The legal age of marriage in Uganda is 18 (although girls can marry from 16 with parental consent), but UN statistics suggest 40% of girls marry before 18, and 10% before they are 15.
The ICRW report said a lack of sex education and access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services contributed to early pregnancies that very often lead to early marriage.
The Uganda Demographic and Health Survey 2016 reported that almost a fifth (19%) of girls aged 15 to 19 have given birth – another 5% were pregnant with their first child. Teenagers in rural areas were more likely to have children at a young age. Around 25% of those who drop out of school are pregnant teenagers.
Uganda has one of the world’s youngest populations, with 75% of people below the age of 30 and 58% under the age of 20. The country also has one of the highest fertility rates – women give birth to an average of 5.6 children – compared with 4.8 in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. This is attributed to low use of contraceptives and early marriage.
Nacap is one of those trying to turn the tide where she lives. She now helps at a club for girls run by Bangladeshi NGO Brac, aimed at 10- to 22-year-olds and offering information on the dangers of early marriage and pregnancy. They also provide training, including tailoring and agricultural skills, and advice on how to manage money.
“In club discussions I advise the girls to shun early pregnancy and early marriages. I tell them not to be deceived by boys to ruin their future. I encourage them to go to school to study,” says Nacap, who is back in contact with her family. “Those who can’t manage studies [I encourage] to engage in a particular business activity and earn money for themselves.”
There are 250 clubs in Karamoja’s seven districts. “We share our experiences by telling stories, participating in debates, discussion of issues such as rape, adolescent sexual and reproductive health rights, growing up and menstrual hygiene. We talk about HIV, family planning and contraception,” says Nacap.
A total of 14,392 of girls have attended since May 2016, and about a quarter of them now run a business or have a job. About 80% have control over their earnings and 59% participate in household decision-making.
Nacap now runs a small bakery and restaurant – making doughnuts and selling cooked mixed maize and beans, chapatis and tea. She is not married and does not plan to be any time soon. “Which boy or man can deceive and lure me? No. I have money from business. I am busy trying to expand it. I don’t have time to think about men and marriage,” says Nacap.
She uses some of the money she earns to support her two sisters. “I need them to study and become role models. Our [relatives] should stop thinking about marrying them off. They should educate them to become lawyers, teachers, engineers and bankers who can make change in our community,” says Nacap.
“I need financial support. I need to expand the bakery and restaurant business to achieve my dreams.”