The walk to school can be dangerous in Karamoja. In this region of north-east Uganda, one of the poorest in the east African country, marriages can begin with a man abducting a woman, raping her and keeping her captive at his house until it is unacceptable for her to return to the life she had. Girls on their way to school are a target.
“Most children drop out of school when their mothers cannot always escort them. Other mothers, out of fear, stop sending their girls to school,” says Christine Akello, from the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers in Karamoja.
It is why Gloria Nakong became a home-help when she was seven. Nakong’s sister, her guardian since their father died, thought such a job would keep her safe. So she helped other children get ready for school, babysat, cooked, cleaned and carried containers of water three times her weight. Eventually her family raised the money to send her to Kangole Girls’ boarding school.
Had that not happened, Nakong would have a different childhood: at 12 she would have worn beads around her neck and colourful skirts; shaved part of her head and got tattoos. She would have learned the songs and dances of her people in celebration of a “beautiful culture”, says Monica Alany, a young Karamojong woman.
At 15 she would be expected to move out of her parents’ hut into a communal one for girls.
“We, the Karamojong people, like our culture – whether good or bad,” Alany says. “It is in these huts that girls are raided and forced to have sex in the night. If the boys fail, they wait for the girl on her way to school or the market.
“Even though the community does not protect the girls from rape, the boys of the household beat the girls when they find out that they ‘allowed’ [themselves] to be raped.”
Alany’s mother hid her at a Catholic mission to keep her safe.
“Courtship rape” is commonplace, says Akello. “Many women who are married are survivors of courtship rape and believe that men have a right to rape them as a sign of affection or expression of interest,” she says. In some cases, family members hold women down or help plot the abduction.
Alice Nakiru was 20 when a friend of the family broke into her house, dragged her to his home and raped her repeatedly. He kept her for days. She screamed and begged but no one came to her rescue.
“That is how I became his wife,” says Nakiru, now 32, as she stirs porridge at home in Karamoja. “I moved from looking after my grandmother and uncles to looking after my husband and these children.”
Even the policeman you would report to also took a woman and made her his wife by force
Nakiru dropped out of school when her mother died. After the youngest of her uncles got married and no longer needed Nakiru’s housekeeping, he arranged for her abduction.
“Everyone gets married like that,” she says. “Even the policeman you would report to also took a woman and made her his wife by force.”
Nakong says the future must look different and all girls must go to school to avoid “the injustice of rape”.
“School is the only place where, as a girl, you can feel safe,” she says.
For 60 years, Kangole Girls’ boarding school in Moroto, run by Catholic nuns, has been a sanctuary.
“We open our school to the community and reach those girls who would be left out of school. We talk to their parents and encourage them to bring the girls to school, where they can be safe and have food to eat. By talking to parents, we ensure that the girl who would have stayed home, got married and not received an education gets an education and a better future,” says headteacher Sister Emma Wachira.
Former pupil Joyce Namoe works for the World Food Programme. She escaped a forced marriage at 19, and now oversees the school meals programme.
A girl would come the gate with Karamojong “warriors” and male relatives at her heels, Namoe says. “The moment the men would see the headmistress standing at the gate waiting for the girl, they would turn back, and the girl was safe”.
“Today, many girls have gone to school, but they are still subjected to courtship rape. A girl from Karamoja is not expected to fall in love. You marry whoever your family chooses.”
Ugandan law prohibits child marriage, but more than a third of girls are married before 18. In eastern Uganda, the rate is more than 50%. Laws upholding customary and religious marriages for girls under 18 were declared unconstitutional in February.
Covid school closures lasted almost two years in Uganda, a precarious time for girls who were lured into sex for food or clothing. “If they refused, they were threatened with violence and defiled,” Akello says. “Women are regarded as having low value. Legal provisions are inadequate and do not fully protect women and girls, and poverty means many of them cannot access legal services.”
During the pandemic, which began when Nakong was 13, village men, saw an opportunity. “The warriors started coming for me,” she says. “I stayed at home in fear and never went out. I prayed that the schools reopen so that I could resume my studies, be sure of school meals and be safe from the men. I never wanted to be like other girls who were raped and married off.”
Speaking out against the practice is taboo and the custom thrives in silence in the sprawling Karamoja hills.
Michael Aboneka, a lawyer who has successfully sued the government for failing to protect the rights of women, thinks it will take more than having girls in school to end courtship rape.
“A woman ends up in a forced marriage with 12 children instead of studying and working to make her life better,” he says. “The law against such injustices must become more deterrent because what we have is clearly not enough.”
Nakong wishes never to return to her village. “There are so many dangers out there,” she says. “I survived the warriors and now I am working hard to become a lawyer because I want to give people justice. I want to fight for the girl child.”