When she was growing up in Karamoja in Uganda’s northeastern region, Rachael Lokang’s dream was to be a nurse.
But her poor mother could not even afford the fees to join secondary school. Some well-wishers, however, supported her through primary school and In 2015, at 16, Ms Lokang scored an aggregate 19 at Muroto Municipal Primary School.
Today, her dream of becoming a nurse has become a mirage.
“I would like to be a nurse to assist sick people in my community, but we cannot raise the school fees. My father died when I was 12,” Ms Lokang said.
She is among many girls in her community whose dreams have been shattered by poverty and outdated cultural practices.
According to Ministry of Education and Sports data, in Moroto district, only 13 per cent of girls completed primary education last year. Census reports show there are 23,154 girls between the ages of six and 12 in Moroto but only 4,786 were in school by July 2015.
Moroto municipal education officer William Isura said retention of girls up to primary seven is a major issue as many of them drop out before completing primary cycle of education because of different challenges.
“A girl attending school is seen being a lazy person whom a man will not have interest in marrying in future. Because of this cultural belief, girls in Karamoja have for many years been denied the right to education,” he said.
From the age of five, a Karimojong girl is prepared for marriage. At 12 years the girls are engaged to young men of about 18 years. After the age of 12 most parents neglect duties of educating the girl child and sometimes one is forced to get married.
A man pays between 60 and 100 cows as bride price.
Female genital mutilation, early marriages, lack of facilities in schools and poorly equipped schools continue to deny the majority of Karimojong girls access to education.
Despite it being illegal, girls once having undergone FGM, are considered ready for marriage. The community believes that girls should marry while still young so as to be “good mothers.”
According to Kul Chandra, the co-ordinator of the Institute for International Co-operation and Development (C&D), which promotes education in Karamoja, in Karimojong culture, girls are a source of family wealth, must do domestic chores and look after children to attract karacunas — boys from wealthy families looking for partners to marry.
Girls therefore become breadwinners at a young age, doing casual labour to support their families.
Malnutrition rates are high, as nearly 80 per cent of the population in Karamoja experiences food insecurity due to unreliable rainfall. The region’s literacy rate is 12 per cent compared with the 68 per cent national rate.
Against the odds
But it is not all doom and gloom for the young women of Karamoja.
Against the odds, some have risen to succeed. Jackline Lomenon, 24, dropped out of Senior three in 2013 after she became pregnant and was kicked out of their home. She rented a house in Moroto and earned $14.8 a day from brewing traditional beer.
Ms Lomenon was later paid $0.87 daily for working in a restaurant.
In early 2015, she heard C&D in Moroto was offering training to school dropouts and enrolled for a six-month animal health certificate course.
“My mother took my daughter to her home in Nakapiritpirit to enable me to study and my family forgave me for having a child before marriage, which the community frowns on,” said Ms Lomenon.
She said her immediate plan is to join secondary school to complete Senior Four and pursue further studies.
The course enabled her to get a temporary job last year with the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The contract, however, ended in May. Initial pay at FAO enabled Ms Lomenon to buy a plot in Nakapiritpirit and pay her younger sister’s school fees.
Irene Likolo, 24, has not let her misfortunes faze her. After completing primary seven, Ms Likolo’s parents said she could not proceed to Senior One.
Then she got pregnant and was chased away from home in Napaka district.
“I got a job in a restaurant in Moroto where I earned $30 per month ,” said Ms Likolo.
She was persuaded by her boyfriend to go his home in Napaka and conceived again. Domestic violence, however, forced her to return to her parents home to begin afresh.