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Thursday, September 1, 2022

Recently I was scrolling on twitter and came across a video clip of a young girl being forced into a car in an alleged abduction for marriage aka okukyiriza in Ruyankole. According to the poster of the video, the auntie of the young girl was part of the operation. To say this video made me sick to my stomach is an understatement and wish I had the ability to unsee it. According to some commentators on social media, they say the incident happened in Kyotera District and the victim is a S. 2 student at Kabaale Secondary school. 

The desperate cries for help and the manner in which the men carried on with their kidnap peacefully, undistracted, unbothered of any authority intervening tells of a society that is very unjust to girls in Africa. This practice was common in rural western Uganda in years gone by and its surprising that in this 21st century such a practice is still going on uncondemned. What follows after this kidnap is repeated sexual violence/rape, until the girl gets pregnant and thus used as a justification for marriage. How sick can society get? All the leaders, parents everybody, how can we let this HAPPEN? Unless we have all lost our moral compass.

South Africa has a similar practice referred to as ukuthwala, Telefa, is another one though made illegal in 1996 is still practiced in rural parts of North-Eastern Ethiopia. They all involve sexual violence and coercion into marriage. All this violates girl’s bodies and is rooted in society’s desire to control women and deny them the right to education which would lead them to self sufficiency. If a boy is given the right to make choices, why not the girl child too.

The freedom to choose when and whom to marry should never be taken away from anybody because it comes with so much risk including violence and the ability to protect yourself from sexually transmitted illnesses. 

According to the UNICEF global database 2020, Uganda is home to 5million child brides and of these 1.3 million are married before their 15th birth day, to grown men. These statistics are shocking to say the least and the risk is higher for girls living in rural areas, less educated and from low income households. 

Some of these statistics are shocking because this is not a topic that is well reported about by the media, probably because they don’t find it news worthy. What we forget is that as journalists we have the power to set the agenda in our society. What we give attention will be addressed and thus changing attitudes of everyone. Let’s play our part very well. 

We are letting the girl child down if we cannot protect her from such injustice, and monstrous behavior from those that should protect her. Where’s her consent in this? The right to consent to a marriage is recognized in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which makes forced marriage a violation of human rights. Coming back to our backyard, the biggest cause is always poverty causing parents to sell off their children for economic gain. 

The prevalence of forced Marriages in all regions in the world is highest in Africa with 38% of women married before the age of 18 and 12% married before the age of 15. Its also estimated that if the progress persists, sub-Saharan Africa will have the biggest share of child brides by 2050.

 Underage and forced Marriages are often promoted by social cultural traditions and some societies still hold them close as a familiar connections to secure a girls future. One can only imagine the trauma that girl in the video has gone through already in the name of securing her future. We need a systematic strategy in curbing the patriarchal nature of our society to end such barbaric acts. Engaging national and local government and not forgetting the role of non governmental organizations that spearhead girl child protection. 

Empowering a girl child is giving her the ability to live an independent life, self sufficient and freedom to make well informed decisions. One of the ways is to ensure she keeps in school and the other is sensitization of communities to ensure behavioral change to influence social and gender norms. A man in this equation comes in as an equal companion and not a savior. 

The other way is to strengthen legislation with laws and policies that protect the girl child. The children’s Act (2016) set the minimum age of marriage at 18 but many cases go unreported due to the perpetrators involved i.e. the child’s most trusted people. 

Our leaders must strongly protect the girl child and make it mandatory for them to remain in school and anyone who attempts to forcefully sexually insult a school going child like the one I saw in the video must face the toughest side of the law and must be charged with rape. 

Let’s empower our people with the ability to live a healthy fulfilling life and not one of slavery and trauma. 

The writer is a citizen of Uganda.