When Hope Nankunda got married at the age of 24 to a man of her choice, she found herself reflecting about just how different her life may have been had she been born a few years earlier.
When Hope and her sister Dembe* were children, their father died and without him and the money he earnt the family struggled to survive. As their mother couldn’t afford to keep both daughters Dembe was forced to leave school and get married. In contrast, Hope was able to stay on in school and later trained as a teacher.
Reflecting on the different courses their lives had taken, Hope began to think more and more about how she could save girls from an experience like Dembe’s. Eventually, she left her teaching job and along with three others established Health Promotion Rights Watch – Uganda (HPRW-U). HPRW-U, which is based in Kampala, works in two ways: at a local level by going into schools and helping to strengthen the health system and at a national level with policy makers.
"No girl deserves to be exposed to life as a married toddler or to be subjected to child bearing at a young age.We should all play our individual roles in ending child marriage and teenage pregnancy."
During their visits to schools, Hope and her team provide girls with information about child marriage; sexual health; relationships; teenage pregnancy and menstrual hygiene. They also talk to them about their rights and options beyond marriage. They often deliver this information in the form of individual counselling as opposed to classroom sessions as they believe that by building a rapport with the girls on a one to one basis ensures that they have a safe space to share their worries and concerns and find solutions. Hope’s primary aim is to keep girls in school so the sessions often focus on finding ways for the girls to continue with their education. By helping girls in this way, HPRW-U believes that they can then take control of their own futures. HPRW-U’s career guidance and goal setting programmes also help girls understand the options available so they can work towards better alternatives to marriage or pregnancy.
But it’s not just married girls who end up missing school. HPRW-U estimates that most Ugandan girls miss an average of 48 days of school each year because they do not have menstrual hygiene products and are unable to attend school during their period. HPRW-U attempts to mitigate this by providing girls with sanitary towels and extra underwear as well as information about menstrual hygiene. Hope and her team also provide books and other educational materials for girls but Hope believes that it is the counselling that is the most important resource she and the team provide. She says that often the girls have no one to talk to about their problems because many of the subjects are taboo in Ugandan society.
HPRW-U recognises that children can only take so much responsibility for their health, education and rights so it has expanded its work to include talks to parents and families about the dangers of child marriage and teenage pregnancy. Hope says these talks are very illuminating particularly in rural areas where child marriage is often a response to poverty. Like Hope’s own mother, many parents feel forced to marry off their daughters for financial reasons and sometimes even to get food for the rest of the family.
HPRW-U’s work with girls and families is complimented by its work with policy makers so change can happen at multiple levels. As part of this work, HPRW-U set up a petition to ask the Ugandan government to create, fund and implement activities aimed at addressing teenage pregnancy in the country. To date, they have gathered 130,000 signatures, of which 78% are from young people under 35 themselves. HPRW-U hopes that these signatures will contribute to persuading the government to focus attention and resources on reducing teenage pregnancy and child marriage. As part of her role as the regional co-ordinator for Girls Not Brides Uganda, Hope also engages with the government by reaching out to ministers and others in civil society to encourage action to end child marriage.
This combination of community-and government-level activism by HRPW-U is helping to combat child marriage from the ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom up’
Hope and her team have been nominated as Girls Not Brides change-makers as part of the celebrations for International Day of the Girl 2016.
In the time it has taken to read this article 46 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds