October 11, is International Day of the Girl Child 2021, Uganda joins the rest of the world to commemorate the themed “Digital Generation. Our Generation”.
This theme emphasises the need for equal access to the internet, digital devices for girls and targeted investments to facilitate opportunities for girls to safely and meaningfully access, use, lead and design technology.
The COVID-19 pandemic moved most of the world, including advocacy and activism for gender equality, online. This digital transformation intensifies the need for equal access to the internet for girls. Every girl has the potential to be an advocate for transformational change for gender equality, and with the new digital era, technology plays an integral role in forwarding this agenda.
Creating a world where every girl has equal access to the internet, the opportunities it offers and the digital platforms where they can use their voices to effect change and gender equality requires that no girl is left behind. However, for many girls in Uganda, especially in Karamoja, a world where they can experience the limitless possibilities a digital era has to offer is still a far cry from reality. Widespread societal issues like Gender-Based Violence and early and forced marriage stifle the growth and empowerment of girls in Karamoja. If we are to create a digital generation where a girl in the most rural parts of Karamoja is not left behind, we have to start by addressing the root issues which hamper their development and empowerment.
Gender-Based Violence and Harmful Traditional Practices such as early marriage and forced marriage are still glorified cultural practices in the Karamojong communities and many other areas in Uganda. According to a 2015 report by UNICEF on Ending Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy in Uganda, the practice of child marriage affects over 60% of young girls in Uganda of which 15% are married off by age 15 and 49% by age 18. The National Strategy to End Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy in Uganda 2014/2015 – 2019/2020 affirms that arranged marriages for adolescent girls without their consent are common in Uganda, especially in the rural areas and it places the age at first marriage for women in rural areas at 17.6 years. This average age of first marriage is two years earlier for girls from rural areas than it is for girls from urban areas, who, on average enter their first marriage at age 20. In Karamoja, a teenage girl is considered ripe for marriage and is likely to be tortured, abducted or threatened into marrying at an early age. Girls who have attained the age of majority go through the same fate where they are forced to marry men who are not their partner of choice.
Early and forced marriage rob girls of their opportunity to live life to the full, achieve their potential and become the agents of change and transformation in the society that they can be. Early and forced marriage also rob girls of their right to education which in turn robs them of their sure opportunity for empowerment, exposure and growth. A girl is forced to focus on family and raising children with no chance of going back to school in sight. The emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing of girls forced into marriage is not left unscourged. To ensure a digital generation for every girl in Uganda, the plight of the rural Karamojong girl needs to be heard and addressed.
FIDA Uganda is playing a significant role in widening the pathways through which even the Karamojong girl will thrive in the digital generation by contributing towards ending early and forced marriage in Karamoja. As a legal aid service provider, FIDA in collaboration with development partners has successfully intervened and offered pro bono legal support in a number of early and forced marriage cases. FIDA employs multiple strategies like engaging in awareness campaigns against child and forced marriage where we strategically involve men and boys since they are the common perpetrators. Through the informal justice component of FIDA’s interventions, FIDA has engaged cultural leaders who are the custodians of justice in Karamoja. The opinions of these cultural leaders are revered and they are likely to create impact in the community by speaking against these practices and advocating for gender equality and ending violence against women and girls.
There is need for government to streamline and harmonise national laws and policies on marriage and ensure their enforceability and operationalisation. There is need for legal and policy reform that captures all dynamics of forced and child marriage and addresses systemic drivers of these severely harmful practices.
Government should prioritise education and empowerment of girls, including girls from the communities that have been left behind in Uganda. Through education, government should ensure access to appropriate information on sexual reproductive health rights for both boys and girls. Furthermore, taking into cognisance the vulnerability of rural populations government should provide economic support to families to ensure that girls are not married off in order for their families to survive.
There is need to prioritise funding of initiatives that will empower girls in rural settings to access and use technology. If such initiatives do not exist at the grassroots level, there is need for such programs to be created to ensure no girl is left behind. There is need to ensure continuous engagement and involvement of strategic groups of people like community, cultural and religious leaders and especially male engagement in ending forced and early marriage. This engagement should be led by respected government leaders and politicians.
When laws against forced marriage and gender based marriage are enforced and necessary reforms made, when every girl has the freedom to experience all life’s stages fearlessly and is free to dream beyond the bounds of her village, when every girl has access to education and opportunities for empowerment, then a digital generation will be a reality for every girl.