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Early Marriage: Uganda

In Uganda, laws and policies have been enacted to address the problem of early marriage and child pregnancies. However, age old attitudes and in some cases, the failure to implement current statutes, still stand in the way of completely eradicating the problem. VOA English to Africa reporter Herbert Were spoke with people in Uganda about proposed legislation concerning child marriage.

Ten years ago, parliament approved a statute to protect children; it was expected to also discourage early marriage. The statute established children’s courts at the village level to try cases of defilement and underage marriage (constituted as men who marry girls under the age of 18).

However, early marriages still persist in Uganda; girls under 18 years of age account for 31 percent of all pregnancies.

Kyateka Mondo is the commissioner of Youth and Children in the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development.

“early marriage is a big issue here in Uganda. There are so many communities in this country where young girls are having sex at the age of 16. In fact the mean age of first sexual (act) is 16 for girls and 18.1 for boys.”

Cultural attitudes, poverty and weak enforcement of existing statutes are partly to blame in a country where 6,000 teenage girls die annually from pregnancy related complications.

But critics say the 1996 statute aimed at protecting children is unable to cancel out the heavy influence of Koranic law, which stipulates puberty as the age of consent; or customary law, which allows couples to marry at sixteen years of age.

Meanwhile, in recent years, the AIDS crisis has also impacted early marriage. Studies show that relatives encourage children to marry early if their parents have died of AIDS. This saves the extended family the high cost of caring for abandoned, or even infected, children.

The women’s movement in Uganda is pushing for tougher laws and more effective enforcement. They are sponsoring the domestic relations bill, a comprehensive law on marriage and women’s rights; however, it is stuck in Uganda’s legislature. Women’s groups believe that the bill would make protections for women and children easier to enforce.

Peace Kyamureku is the Secretary General of the National Association of Women Organizations in Uganda (NAWOU).

“We have been trying hard as not only in NAWOU the organization which I head, but the women’s movement in Uganda. That is why we have been urging for the passing of the domestic relations bill because one of the articles that we think is very important for the development of this country is the article on the age of consent.”

The proposed bill would reaffirm the age of consent as 18 years of age. The legislation also aims to improve women’s rights with regard to marriage, divorce, separation, inheritance and property ownership.

The Domestic Relations Bill, which the legislature failed to pass two years ago, has stimulated religious and socio-economic controversy. Muslims, for example, oppose a bill that allows men only one wife, rather than four as guaranteed in the Muslim Holy Book, the Koran.

Kyamureku, like many women activists in Uganda, is still pushing for the legislation to be passed without revisions.

They say enacting this legislation would put in place a law specifically for women that is in accordance with the Ugandan constitution. Legal specialists say the police and the courts cannot act without specific and more forceful laws that codify Constitutional rights, making this type of law necessary.

Feminists say a spirited public campaign is needed for the bill to win Ugandan public approval if it is to be finally be passed by parliament.

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