As the famous saying goes, “Thank God we do not look like what we’ve been through!” 15 year old Esther’s (not real name) demeanor is a perfect fit for this description. It’s possible that one may never know their true strength until crisis hits and being strong is the only option left.
Smiling gracefully as she sits with the other girls, one can tell that Esther is special. Her resilient spirit shines through as she tells a harrowing tale of how she was forcefully abducted and married off to a man who paid her bride price without her consent or knowledge. Hailing from Ngongosowon village, Karita Parish in Amudat Sub County, the eldest of her siblings, Esther was married off in December 2019 to a man called Maide. Maide’s family secretly negotiated with her father and 10 cows were paid as bride price for her. On the fateful day, Esther was on her way to collect firewood to prepare the family meal as was her normal routine. Unknown to her, this day would forever change her life. She was kidnapped and taken on a motorcycle that was prearranged.
“Now that half of the cows have been paid, she is in your hands; you can discipline her in any way you feel like. Those were my father’s words to my husband,” she recalled. In the days that followed, her now estranged husband implemented these words every time she escaped, he and his friends collectively battered her. But that did not deter her spirit for survival; she managed to escape a total number of four times till she was successful.
“I escaped to Kosike for three weeks, until my aunt found me and took to me back to my husband’s home. I again escaped to Kenya, where I was found after a month, brought back, again escaped to Alale, West Pokot distict Kenya” she said almost proudly. “My mother tried reporting to police but father, my uncles and in-laws beat her in order to stop her from reporting to police.”
Sometime later, Esther went to visit her mother but this innocent visit infuriated her husband and he beat her for it. It was then that she decided she had had enough of the torture and sought refuge at the Police. As soon as her father heard that she had escaped to the Police, he went to Police under the guise of the reporting the disappearance of his daughter however, he was immediately detained. Esther was then handed over to the Kalas Girls shelter where she is currently residing.
Kalas Girls and Katikit Primary Schools are schools providing shelter to girls who have abandoned their homes for safety from FGM and Early Child Marriages. According to UNICEF, Uganda has the 16th highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world and the 10th highest absolute number of child brides globally – 787,000. Customary marriages or informal marriages, where a girl lives with an older man, are more common than registered civil or religious marriages.
Sarah (not real name) 13, is another girl hosted at Kalas Primary School. A former beneficiary from a scholarship established by the Amudat RDC, she was able to complete primary school in 2018 but unable to transition to secondary school. Her own brother tried to force her into marriage so that he could obtain cows from her dowry and use them to pay bride price for a second wife.
Sarah was wretched with grief when she discovered her family’s plans which triggered her decision to escape from home. Determined not to suffer the same fate as many of the girls her age, she trekked from Kapetawoi village, Amudat Sub County to Katikit which is roughly 36 kilometers.
It breaks anyone’s heart to imagine a 13 year old child walking by herself a distance of 36 km looking for safety which her own home failed to offer. Sarah endured a night in the bush, fighting all odds to rescue her dream. She arrived at Katikit the following day where she was welcomed and later transferred to Kalas Girls Shelter with the rest of the rescued girls. Best of all, Sarah is willing to join Katikit Primary School as candidate this year to complete her education.
“My dream is to become a lawyer in future so that I am able to help my fellow girls in my community who are abused every day. I pray that I get the opportunity to accomplish my dream,” said Esther as she looked down into her book as she completed her exercise.
Child marriage can have devastating effects on individual girls and their (future) children. Typically, it cuts short or ends a girl’s education, compromises her reproductive rights, sexual health, future employment and earnings, and perpetuates personal and community poverty
These are two of the three new girls who have recently joined the Kalas Girls shelter in Amudat which has become a safe haven for girls who are defying the cultural norms of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child, Early & Forced Marriage (CEFM) with funding from Irish Aid. NAWOU calls upon community stakeholders to continue to ensure communities respect girl’s rights and appeals to law enforcement agencies to implement provisions of the Children’s Act to ensure girls like Sarah and Esther realize their dream.