Church fights a battle for young girls in Uganda, where child marriage is a plague

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Uganda child marriage

SOROTI, Uganda (OSV News) — Lala Mbabazi, who is three months pregnant, sat on a sofa in her one-bedroom mud house on the outskirts of Soroti, a town in eastern Uganda.

The 16-year-old girl was recently married off by her parents after undergoing female genital mutilation, or FGM, traditional harmful practice that involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia, forcing her to drop out of school.

“It wasn’t my wish to get married at this early age. I wanted to continue with my education, but my parents refused and handed me to this man,” she said, asking OSV News not to use her real name. “I feel very bad to be here, but there’s nothing I can do for now.”

Mbabazi was in the ninth grade before her parents decided to marry her off at a young age in exchange for bride price. She said in a conversation with OSV News that her 35-year-old husband paid a “bride price” of 10 cows, five goats and $200 to marry her.

“I didn’t choose the man. It’s my father who chose the man for me in exchange for animals and money,” she said, noting that what hurts her most is dropping out of school. “They would not have allowed me to complete my education before marrying me off.”

Thousands of girls forced into marriage

Mbabazi is among hundreds of thousands of girls in Soroti and other parts of the country whose parents are increasingly pulling from school and marrying them off in exchange for profit amid poverty and soaring food prices.

A recent UNICEF report shows that the East African nation of more than 45 million people has on of the highest prevalence of child marriage globally and the tenth-highest total number of child brides, totaling an estimated 5 million. The report also indicates that 34% of girls in the country are married before age 18 and 7.3% before age 15.

The situation has prompted the Catholic Church to partner with other stakeholders, including government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and other religious leaders, to work and prevent child marriages and early pregnancies through a number of measures aimed at young girls, their families and their communities.

Catechist Paul Muhwezi of the Diocese of Soroti said the ill practice of child marriage had recently increased across the country because the high cost of living was biting Ugandans harder, considering that their incomes had remained stagnant for the last few years.

Economic crisis in Uganda

Various reports show that Ugandans are currently spending twice as much to buy essential goods such as food and fuel, among other commodities.

“The current situation has forced poor families to sell their children into marriage to get some money and livestock,” said Muhwezi, emphasizing that traditional beliefs and religion also are some other root causes of child marriage. “The parents are engaging in these activities to make some money and escape the cycle of poverty. But the situation is affecting our young girls because they are being forced to leave education and choose marriage for the sake of their parents getting money.”

Judith Mutesi, a nurse counselor at Soroti Health Center, said that child marriage causes negative impacts on girls, such as increasing the risk of teenage pregnancy and affecting their health, education and overall development.

Church leaders supporting girls’ education

The church leaders are touring villages and homes to talk to girls about child marriage and empowering them with information to make informed choices. The parents, schools and other community actors also are being taught about the negative effects of early marriage and how to give girls social support.

Religious leaders also distribute menstrual pads to girls to keep them in school and empower poor parents with small businesses so they don’t practice child marriage to contribute economically to their families. A U.N. report estimates that one in 10 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Uganda, misses school during their menstrual cycle.

“We want to ensure that the girls know the effects of child marriages and can report anyone subjecting them to such conditions to the authorities,” Muhwezi told OSV News, noting that the awareness program has already reached dozens of schools and homes in eastern Uganda.

“We also aim to educate parents and elders to support girls’ education and stand against child marriage,” he said.

The Church will not bless child marriages

Bishop Joseph Eciru Oliach of Soroti has, in several instances during his sermons, urged parents not to allow young girls to be forced into early marriages for dowry prices. He said the continued cultural practice was forcing girls out of school and killing the future for girls at the expense of the wealthy.

“I want to encourage parents to stop these bad cultural practices and to focus on educating their daughters for the betterment of their future,” he said Aug. 13 during a thanksgiving Mass at Bukedea, a town in eastern region of Uganda, noting that the church will not encourage or bless child marriages.

Lala Mababzi, who was forced into marriage as a teenager, believes that the government should come out strongly to help the church end child marriages by arresting and charging those who marry underage girls.

“The only way to end this bad culture is to arrest families selling their daughters and those marrying underage girls,” she said. “It has happened to me, but I don’t want it to happen to any other girl because no one took action.”

Tonny Onyuolo

Tonny Onyuolo writes for OSV News from Kampala, Uganda.