KAMULI, UGANDA — Faced with forced early marriages, girls in Uganda drop out of school at a higher rate than boys.
Stella Kaudha is determined to go to college. The 17-year-old Kamuli resident wants to be an English teacher. But first she will have to do something no woman in her family has done before: graduate from secondary school.
"I’m the only one studying in my family. My elders, all of them got married because of money. They are now out of school and they did not complete," she said.
Her mother did not go to school. Her two older sisters, like half of the girls in Uganda’s education system, dropped out to get married. Kaudha is only able to stay in school because her education is being paid for by the charity Plan International.
It is a common story in this poor eastern Ugandan town and across the country. More than a quarter of girls in Uganda drop out before they even finish primary school, according to the United Nations. The number is less than 20 percent for boys.
Mary Musigire, the senior woman teacher at Kamuli Progressive College, says this is because families do not value educating girls. Instead of paying for an education, families with limited resources are eager to marry a girl off to ensure she is provided for.
"Even the parents, they have bad attitudes toward girls’ education. So many of the parents don’t pay school fees for their children… They force girls to go for early marriage, while educating a boy child," she said.
Stopping early marriage is the focus of the United Nations’s first-ever International Day of the Girl Child. Despite being illegal in Uganda, early marriages are common and limit a girl's access to education. According to the U.N. Children’s Fund, Uganda has the 15th-highest rate of child marriage in the world.
Along with family pressure, pregnancy plays a role in forcing young girls out of school. Evelyn Letiyo, who works in the gender division at the U.N. Population Fund in Uganda, says that once girls become pregnant, their families often force them to get married.
She says, in addition to ending their education, early pregnancy raises critical social and health issues.
"What it means for a girl, is her future is doomed," she said. "In terms of health, this is I think where there is huge concern, you find that girls, their bodies are not ready to have babies. When they have babies, they are not mentally and emotionally ready to have these babies."
She says schools need to provide girls with a better understanding of the impact early pregnancy can have both on their health and their livelihoods.
That is what Raphael Kaiso is doing at Kamuli Girls School. He runs the school’s Children’s Parliament. The parliament is a unique setup where each grade elects representatives who meet regularly with staff members and the community to talk about their concerns. The meetings cover a range of issues, from the right to education to reproductive health.
Kaiso says the parliament has been critical in changing community attitudes about keeping girls in school.
"Previously, girl children, they used to work in gardens, to stay at home to prepare for boys and not minding about the education," he said. "Today things have changed… Now they came, all the stakeholders, on board and that’s why they are in position to articulate their rights the way they are doing it."
He says encouraging girls to defend themselves is the only way to keep them out of early marriages.