By Sarah Amviko

Yumbe– At Bidibidi settlement camps, one finds underage girls emerge from their tents, at water points, schools while some sit with boys under verandahs.

Some carry children on their back, while others go about cooking with babies tucked on their back. It is usually difficult to differentiate if the children they carry belong to them or their parents. But an interaction with the girls evokes grim stories on how they became mothers at a tender age.

And so during an interview with one of the girls at Zone IV in Bidibidi, a 15 year-old, Susan Aje, narrates how she became a mother.

“I wanted to get married so that my husband can provide for my needs. Yes I am married” she said softly.

After giving birth she has not been getting the support she expected. They were separated by the war that has continued to drive away South Sudanese into Uganda. She says her husband has been registered as a refugee in Imvepi refugee settlement which is far from Bidibidi refugee settlement.

“I am the first born brought up by a single mother. When we arrived in Uganda, my mother could not afford for our basic needs, so I dropped out of school,” Aje said.

From her story, it was not her wish to get married but the poverty that struck the family where the mother could not provide for her necessities. “When I realized my mother could not buy for me clothes and even pads that I needed most I decided I should get a man so that my needs can be fulfilled,” she added.

But all has not been a bed of roses for her in the marriage. “When I met Sijali (my husband) I thought all my troubles were over and less than three months I got pregnant and I was happy to know it. However, my joy was shuttered because Sijali decided to leave me alone,”

She added: “Life is very hard items like soap, basins for bathing the new born, clothes, food became impossible to get so I decided to work at food distribution Centre so that I can carry for people food items and get paid back with some food that I cooked and made some Mandazi to generate income to buy clothes and soap for new born.”

What drives child marriage in South Sudan?

The high levels of poverty, conflict, instability, low levels of literacy and gender gaps in education fuels it. Girls and families often feel that they are escaping poverty by marrying young.

Many South Sudanese communities see child marriage as a way to protect girls from pre-marital sex and unwanted pregnancies. Families also marry off their daughters in exchange for a bride-price or other much-needed resources such as of cattle which is highly cherished.

“It’s a challenge for me, all I want now is to go back to school and learn tailoring so that I can support my child,” Suzan said as tears rolled down her checks.

According to United Nations foundation, there are more than 65 million people who have been forced from their homes worldwide. Girls who leave from their homes are often the most vulnerable and are the least likely to be in school. Refugee girls who are not in school are especially vulnerable to early marriage, human trafficking, and child labor.

Child marriage is outlawed in Uganda. And just as Uganda is fighting the silent evil act of child marriage among the school going children, child marriage situation in refugee camps is worrying and it needs to be battled.

Aje is not alone facing the realities of life. A 20 year-old Pony Gloria who got married at 13 years says, however much several issues remain unresolved, parental guidance and indiscipline cases among young girls have also contributed to so many cases of early marriage.

There is need for NGO’S to have home to home visit to make girls the dangers of early marriage otherwise marriage is a fashion to young girls.

A lot remains to be done especially the need to introduce vocational school for girls and boys who feel aged to join primary. There is also need to have more schools with sanitary facilities and female teachers to help on girl concern.

Experience in the camp 

After two hours’ drive to Bidibidi from 9:00am and arrived at the camp by 11:00am. I saw many young girls about the age of thirteen and fifteen moving from one house to another chatting and smiling. I picked an interest to walk around the settlement and eventually I met a group of ladies who seemed to be for a meeting.  After an eye contact with them, they seemed uninterested perhaps because it was there first time to see me.

They were bare-footed, looking very shy when I approach them, but, I could not stop my smile to them so that we could share on early marriage status in the camp and they were the right persons.

 Marriage or school for the refugee’s girls

Much as many NGO’s are operating in the camps, more effort is needed to reduce child marriage among refugee girls.

In an interaction with ten girls, seven of them preferred to get married because of the barriers they have faced as refugees ranging from negative attitudes towards girls’ education among their parents.

The girls say their parents have a notion that to educate a girl is a waste of time and money. But this stereotype needs to be demystified by all partners, media and the local camp leaders by discouraging child marriage.

At the camps, there is inadequate school infrastructure, such as classrooms and furniture and above all having no secondary or institution to join in Uganda and also parents living there responsibilities for the girls handle.

The OPM’s Refugee Desk Officer for Arua, Solomon Osakan, said they want to ensure that permanent classrooms are built in order to improve the learning conditions.  He said there was need for humanitarian organizations to support the girl child in the camps.

“We have 110,000 children for primary education with only 38,961 attending primary school now. And we still have 27,000 children and students who could join secondary education. So the challenge remains the high number of youths who are idle and engage in bad acts,” he said.

Due to these hurdles most girls in the refugee settlements prefer child marriage or child prostitution to earn a living.

However, most of the girls in Bidibidi zone three believe that marriage is not best option for them. They wish to have institutions that can enroll them for studies in tailoring, hand crafts, catering and many others that would keep them busy.

Challenges

A former teacher in South Sudan at the camp, Taban said: “It is unfortunate that some parents still think there is no relevance in educating girls because at the end of educating them. They will still get married and it is the family of the ladies married to who benefit.”

Just as U.N is advocating for a bill to ensure countries support refugees with access to safe, quality primary and secondary education, there is need for the government to promote refugee girl child education and strengthen the capacity of refugee community organizations to play their vital role in refugee children’s education.

Key facts

Marriage under the age of 18 is widely considered a human rights violation, though it is legal with parental consent in many countries. It falls within the definition of gender-based violence. Married  girls  are  at  risk  of  intimate  partner  violence  and  exposure  to  sexually  transmitted  infections,  including  HIV. End