Uganda’s 1995 Constitution – the supreme law of the country – sets the legal age of marriage at 18 years old. However, legal exceptions under certain customary and religious laws still remain, though they were recently struck down as unconstitutional by Uganda’s Constitutional Court. Further, without effective implementation, any law prohibiting child marriage remains good only on paper.
And such is the case with Uganda, where cases of child marriage remain alarmingly high, with 1.5 million girls married before the age of 15 and 4.9 million before 18. This represents 34% of girls in the country (UNFPA, 2023).
Challenges with implementing Uganda’s law against child marriage are outlined in Ending Child Marriage in Eastern and Southern Africa: Challenges in Implementing Domestic Laws and the SADC Model Law on Child Marriage, a policy brief published by Equality Now, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum, that examines the implementation of domestic and regional laws on child marriage in SADC countries, focusing on Uganda as a case study, along with Malawi and Zambia.
Contributing to the policy brief’s findings was Joy for Children Uganda, an NGO that has been working since 2005 to end child marriage and other forms of violence against children.
Equality Now spoke to founder and director Moses Ntenga about what motivated him to start Joy for Children Uganda and what are some of the drivers of child marriage.
What inspired you to set up Joy for Children Uganda to help end child marriage in Uganda?
I grew up in a large extended family with my siblings and cousins always around, we were happy-go-lucky kids. Our grandmother valued education, and it was a must for everyone. Our family placed a lot of emphasis on this, and we were expected to excel in school.
As a child, I could see lots of women and girls mistreated by their families and at school. Many dropped out and got pregnant, others became house girls. I saw a challenge and felt compelled to do something about it since it affects everyone across all classes, regardless of whether they are rich or poor.
I had a cousin who was made pregnant by a teacher, and they had to get married. My aunt tried to seek justice and to make sure the man was punished, but it never happened, and this memory never left me.
At university, I focused on child sexual abuse because it has such a devastating impact on girls through marriage and pregnancy. Once it happens, a girl with no income faces an imbalance in power relations that can be very abusive.
When we started Joy for Children, there weren’t many conversations in Uganda about sexual abuse. People knew it was happening, and they knew girls who were vulnerable. Some felt it was normal because it was so common.
We had a big problem, but nobody was willing to talk about it. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing, and I kept asking myself why I should focus on something that nobody was discussing. But things are changing. Today, we have more people working to address child marriage and sexual abuse, communities are now seeing it as a problem, and more girls are being sent to school.
What are some of the drivers of early and child marriage in Uganda?
The Constitution of Uganda states that the legal age of marriage is 18 years for a girl child and 21 years for a boy, and whoever contracts child marriage shall be held liable and punished by the law by paying fines or imprisonment. However, there is a lack of public understanding about the legal age of marriage.
Unwanted pregnancy and forced marriage
If a girl gets pregnant, she usually has to marry the man who got her pregnant, even if she does not want to. If a girl tries to resist, she often faces insults and violence in the home. Some run away, but another challenge is the lack of safe spaces for girls, which means they have nowhere to go.
Most traditional marriages are arranged, and girls sometimes get married because they are placed under a lot of pressure. The earlier the age that the girl matures physically, the sooner she is married. Even a girl who is 17 will be deemed too old.
If a girl is married off, the parents no longer have to pay school fees, and parents who have not gone to school may not appreciate the value of education. Lack of sanitary towels is also a huge challenge since girls miss out on school during their period.
Men may look at girls as a source of income and think marrying will bring economic benefits, “if I marry her, I will get animals or something to keep me going.” Another problem, especially along transit routes and in border towns, is transactional sex with men offering girls money, material things like food, or promises to pay for their education.
Most of the poorest communities in Uganda are led by men, and ingrained patriarchal notions hinder the arrest of the main breadwinner. If you put a man in prison for getting a girl pregnant, the consequences for the family can be dire. The children will go hungry with no one to look after them, so the pregnant girl is pressured to get married and not report anything to the authorities.
Lack of access to comprehensive sex education
Lack of access to sex education is also a big issue. In 2016, the government banned it completely in schools. A group of NGOs took the government to court, and the ban was lifted, but some still see sex as a taboo subject not to be discussed in public. People say that children shouldn’t know about family planning because they will become more promiscuous if they learn about it. Even now, there is still pushback from the church, claiming sex education is bad.
Climate change is another factor. In eastern and western Uganda, people in some mountainous areas have lost their homes and crops due to heavy rains, flooding, and mudslides. Many have been left with nothing and are living in internal displacement camps where girls have little or no access to schooling and are at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence.
One problem in the camps is a lack of sanitary products, which is contributing to child sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies as girls are forced to have sex to get menstrual pads. As a coping strategy, some families are arranging for their daughters to get married at an early age as they see no other option.
What are some of the things that Joy for Children Uganda is doing to tackle child marriage?
Joy For Children is developing age-appropriate information. We are trying to mobilize parliamentarians, civil service, and members of the media to address disinformation circulating about child marriages and correct the narrative through clear, consistent information campaigns.
Civil society organizations are important stakeholders to help spread information on the risks and consequences of child marriage, and we recognize the media as an important partner. Community-based organizations have networks that can help educate the community, and the government should work closely with them to make programs more effective and increase understanding about the law and girls’ rights.