The year 2019 marks yet another season for sustained advocacy towards ending child marriage at all levels of global, regional and national levels. Numerous anti-marriage campaigns have been conducted, that resulted from a call by all states as articulated in various international, regional and national level conventions and declarations .In particular, the global call to end child marriage is reflected in the two procedural resolutions to end child marriage by Human Rights Council and UN general Assembly general recommendation on comment no.31 of the committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and Girls, and no. 18 of the committee on the Rights of the child on harmful practices (November 5, 2014) focusing on ending child marriage. Uganda is committed to the global calls as evidenced by ratification of international instruments.
The prevalence of gender-based violence particularly child marriage in Uganda remains threatening, 10% of girls are married before the age of 15 years whereas 40% are married off before the age of 18 years (UNICEF 2017). This challenge explains why Trailblazers Mentoring Foundation (TMF) in partnership with Plan International Uganda initiated the Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA) project, a 5-year joint project (2016-2020) rolled out in 6 districts of Alebtong, Lira, Kamuli, Bukedea, Tororo and Buyende. The GAA project objective is to ensure that adolescent girls and young women no longer experience Gender Based Violence and live in a safe and protected environment.
The GAA project now in 4th year focuses action on strengthening previous campaigns in national level advocacy in implementation of existing laws and policies on ending child marriage on Policy and Practice change, specifically on. The second high level advocacy meeting last year brought together key government decision makers, CSO representatives that resulted into meaningful discussions and commitments on how to end child marriage.
The 3rd high level meeting therefore was organized to follow up on commitments made during the second meeting and on agreed actions on policy practice towards ending child marriage. It was another opportunity to call upon legislators to push for the finalization of the Sexual Offences Bill (SOB) (SoB) that will strongly complement the NSCM&TP.
The 3rd high level meeting aimed at;
- Sharing progress in actions made after pronouncement of commitments in the last years high level meeting and to agree on concrete steps in ending child marriage particularly through implementation of the National Strategy to End Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy (NSCM&TP).
- Further popularizing GAA mandate among government stakeholders and sustained advocacy to end child marriage and implementation of the NSCM&TP.
- Engaging with legislators on progress in finalization of the Sexual Offences Bill (SOB) that will strongly complement the implementation of the National Strategy to End Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy (NSCM&TP).
Highlights of key issues discussed.
Speaking at the meeting, the advocacy and influencing manager at Plan International Uganda, Irene Kagoya appreciated the enormous strides that have been taken in the fight to end child marriage in Uganda. She noted that despite the existing legal framework to support the fight against child marriage, gaps still exist that need to be addressed. “The Penal code has provisions on rape, defilement and other forms of sexual violence but child marriage is not stipulated as a criminal offence”, she noted. This is a gap because of the nature of how child marriages happen. This omission of child marriage as a criminal offence from the Penal code makes it difficult to hold someone criminally liable for the offence of child marriage. The advocacy and influencing manager further noted that the statistics of child marriage in Uganda are grave and have negative implications for the country. Uganda as a country runs the risk of having a country full of children, thus having a negative impact on the human capital of the country. She noted that child marriage is a complicated form of violence against children that can be equated to slavery manifested in all its worst forms.
Plan international Uganda appreciates all the efforts of government including putting in place the National Strategy to End Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy but funding for implementation of such strategies is lacking. The challenge therefore lies in improving funding to support implementation of the relevant laws/policies. She concluded by highlighting the fact that the Sexual Offences Bill (SOB) is an opportunity for the existing gaps in laws/policies to be addressed in order to guarantee protection for girls against child marriage.
The woman Member of Parliament Kumi district who is also the former chairperson of Uganda Women’s Parliamentary Forum (UWOPA), attested to the existence of laws and policies designed to protect girls from child marriage. These include the Marriage Bill, Employment Act, and Succession Amendment Act among others. She noted that all these have gaps in regard to addressing the specific issue of child marriage. The Hon. Member of Parliament noted that the gaps in existing laws/policies is what gave birth to the Sexual Offences Bill (SOB) that UWOPA has been pushing for. The Bill is a consolidation that brings together all Bills/Laws on sexual offences. Among the issues to be addressed by the Bill are;
- Defining sexual offences that were not provided for in the Penal Code Act.
- Creation of a national sex offences registry.
- Providing for child marriage as a separate offence from defilement.
These provisions in the SOB will address existing gaps and help reduce the high incidences of sexual offences, including child marriage.
The presentation by Police indicated that the Uganda Police is developing a GBV curriculum for training police officers, especially those who interact with cases and victims of GBV. This will help streamline how cases of GBV including child marriage are handled, including developing specific procedures for handling GBV cases. The representative from Police informed members that all the necessary documents for this process have been validated and are awaiting presentation to PAC in order for the standard operating procedures to be developed. In her submission, she highlighted the need to have the director medical health services engaged during such high level meetings in order to find interlinkages between them and police. This is because one of the major challenges to prosecution and conviction of sexual offenders is lack of medical evidence. This is a gap that needs to be addressed.
The CID officer in charge of Kawempe Police station noted that medical examination of victims is not provided for in the Sexual Offences Bill (SOB) and yet medical examination of victims is important in getting convictions of offenders. He suggested that if possible, the following measures should be taken to support medical examination;
- Establishment of a free medical examination policy for victims to offset the costs incurred by victims during medical examinations.
- Parliament support to Police for recruitment of medical personnel in all districts to carry out medical investigations and support the process of getting conviction of offenders.
The TdH country director in his remarks commended UWOPA for the steps taken to ensure the Sexual Offences Bill (SOB) is brought to the floor of Parliament with all the necessary amendments. He however stressed the need for the deliberate engagement of men as partners and making them understand the importance of the bill.
Emerging issues as voiced by stakeholders.
- The sexual offender’s bill is considered to be a women’s bill. There is need to ensure that it is embraced by all stakeholders including the men.
- There is need to involve the director medical health services in subsequent meetings to create the missing linkage between medical examination of victims and prosecution of offenders.
- Some members expressed concern over some clauses in the Sexual Offences Bill (SOB) and suggested that the Bill needs further amendments before it is taken to the floor of Parliament for debate.
- The third high level meeting provided a platform for different stakeholders from Parliament, Police and Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development to share progress on interventions and previous commitments on ending child marriage.
- Some commitments from the second high level meeting had been acted upon. Key among them is the inclusion of a child marriage clause(Clause 38) in the Sexual Offences Bill (SOB) that clearly stipulates child marriage as an offence separate for defilement, and provides for appropriate punishment for all who participate in, aid or fail to report child marriage.
- UWOPA through the woman Member of Parliament for Kumi district pledged to table the Sexual Offences Bill (SOB) on the table of Parliament for discussion as soon as possible in order to have it passed into law.
The Commissioner, MOGLSD Mr. Mondo noted that the state of child marriage in Uganda is still alarming (over 10% of girls are married off before the age of 16). He re-echoed the fact that he still remains uncomfortable with the term ‘child marriage’ because it seems that we are giving the vice legitimacy. The commissioner stressed the need to keep children, especially girls in school. He said that this is the surest way of ensuring that girls are protected from child marriage. Government has put in place measures to ensure that children are kept in school including Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education (USE). It is the role of all stakeholders including CSOs to ensure that communities are made aware of such government programmes. The commissioner highlighted the fact that Uganda loses approximately 77.5 billion shillings annually on managing the impact of violence on women and girls. The cost of child marriage alone annually is 2.7 billion dollars. These statistics justify the need to have child marriage brought to an end in the country. The commissioner pointed out that there is still a budgetary gap in allocation of funds to support the implementation of the National Strategy to End Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy. He appealed to the members of parliament present to allocate money to support implementation.
In his closing remarks, the commissioner informed members that the ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development is conducting a mid-term review of the National Strategy to End Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy but it is unlikely that much will have been achieved because of lack of resources. He noted that the Sexual Offences Bill (SOB) will address issues that the ministry has been working on and pledged the support of the ministry for the Bill. The commissioner concluded by informing participants that the Ministry has developed parenting guidelines to address parenting gaps that lead to neglect of children, a contributory factor to child marriage.