In 2014, the father of teenager Scholastica Arutiang refused to pay for her secondary school education and instead encouraged her to get married.
She was just 15 years. To his surprise, however, she flatly rejected the marriage proposals from Karimojong warriors. Two years down the road, Arutiang is yet to recover from the trauma she suffered for rebelling against her father's orders but luckily, she is now a senior two student at Nadunget SS on the outskirts of Moroto town.
Arutiang's ordeal started in 2013 after sitting her Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE). The father insisted on her getting married because her elder sister set a bad precedent when she got pregnant while in senior two.
"He did not want to waste his money on me; so, the only option was to marry me off but I refused," the 17-year-old said during an emotional interview with The Observer recently.
She recalls how the warriors made her life unbearable during her vacation. They visited her parents' manyatta (as the Karimojong homestead is known) in Lokonrot village every day to coerce her into marriage.
To evade their persistent approaches, Arutiang used to run away from home in the guise of collecting firewood and hide in the wilderness. She would leave home as early as 6am and return in the evening.
"I was being pushed into an early marriage that I did not want because I have other future ambitions," Arutiang, holding back tears, explained.
Her dream is to become a teacher and help many girls in Karamoja to get formal education. There are hundreds of adolescent girls who face similar challenges and drop out of school and end up in forced early marriages. Arutiang is lucky after a local non-government organization, International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), offered to take her back to school last year.
Sarah Ajwang, who is the project manager in-charge of helping such vulnerable girls, says they have a limited budget because they rely on their donors to pay the girls' school fees and provide other logistics.
For Arutiang, IRR pays Shs 250,000 for her tuition per term in the boarding section. Officials are worried that early marriages in Uganda are on the rise despite several government and civil society campaigns to eliminate the practice.
For instance, statistics on adolescent girls startlingly show that three million women in the country today were married before they were 18 years old, which is the age of consent.
Furthermore, one out of four teenage girls (approximately 700,000) are either child- mothers or pregnant. The other most prevalent form of abuse curtailing girl development is violence. According to a recent Unicef and ministry of Gender survey, violence against girls in schools is very high in Karamoja region.
Eight out 10 girls drop out of school because of violence, the survey showed. In Uganda, the picture becomes grimier with recent figures showing that only 32 percent (or 2.3 million out 7.3 million school-going girls) complete primary school.
In her remarks during the International Day of Girl Child celebrations held on October 11 at Moroto Boma grounds, Unicef representative in Uganda Aida Girma urged government and private stakeholders to make sure water and sanitation facilities are available for people.
Water scarcity or lack of water is one of the other major reasons holding back girls from pursuing formal education. In Karamoja, it is a norm that girls (and women) must fetch water and firewood while boys (and men) concentrate on grazing animals.
Girma said while Uganda has made significant progress in enacting laws and policy frameworks to address gender inequalities, there is need to increase investment in quality education and in the health of adolescent girls.
She noted that girls miss an average of 48 days in an academic year due to menstruation and this negatively impacts on their performance in the final examinations.
"Girls lag behind boys because they miss four days of school each month, which is 10 to 20 percent of the school days," she said, appealing to authorities to start availing sanitary pads in schools.
At the end of the Girl Child day festivities in Moroto, officials from government, civil society and UN agencies endorsed six strategic priorities to help adolescent girls prosper and achieve their rights.
The priorities include providing access to quality education and healthcare and preventing violence, among others. The minister for Youth and Children Affairs, Florence Nakiwala Kiyingi, who represented the First Lady as chief guest, assured stakeholders that government will not only strive to enforce laws to protect adolescent girls but will also increase investment in empowering them.
By Moses Mugalu