International Day of the Girl

Today is the first-ever International Day of the Girl.   Even here in Uganda we are hearing that the Empire State Building in New York City is being lit up pink in tribute.  It’s so encouraging that the global community is taking on this important issue!

Today UNICEF South Sudan issued a call to action against child marriage, one of the major challenges facing young girls in this region.

Girls around here are routinely married off as soon as they reach puberty and they have no choice in the matter.

Sarah Awelping is a 19 year-old 6th grader at Salam Girls’ School in Aweil, South Sudan.  I met her recently when we were at her school checking on a well we repaired.   At the age of 15, like many girls her age, Sarah met and fell in love with a boy from a neighboring village.   His name was Garang and the two hoped to eventually marry.   Like many around here she is behind on her education because of the war, and understanding the importance of education, they both agreed to finish school first.

In the meantime, Sarah’s parents were approached by 60 year-old man who offered a large dowry of 100 cows for the young girl.

Despite the fact that the man already had four wives, and many children, Sarah’s parents accepted his offer.   The family was very poor and 100 cows would mean a period of financial security for them.  They would use these cows as currency.  If the crops failed, they would trade them for food.  They would be used to pay school fees for Sarah’s brothers.  And ultimately they would be used to pay the dowries for Sarah’s bothers’ wives.   Girls in this region, and much of the world, bear the burden of being considered one of the few commodities for their poor families.

Sarah was devastated when she secretly learned of her parent’s deal.   She knew the only way for her to be with Garang would be to run away.  So the two snuck away in the night and were secretly married.  When Sarah’s parents learned of the union, they threatened to have the marriage annulled. Fortunately for Sarah she had other supporters!   Her aunt defended her right to marry for love and eventually some other family members also joined in support.   Even though Sarah’s parents were furious over the lost dowry, they eventually gave up.

According to Sarah, girls often suffer terribly when they are given in marriage for a dowry.  The husbands consider them property, since they paid for them, and therefore exert complete control over them.   According to Sarah, unlike a marriage of love and trust, in these arranged unions the wives must ask approval from their husbands in order to even leave the house, often because the husbands fear they will run away.   The relationships are often physically abusive and the wives have no power to resist.

Sarah is adamant that the dowry system needs to change.  She says that, although it worked a long time ago, these days education is important.  She feels young girls should be allowed to focus on school rather than being forced into early marriage.

Although Sarah and Garang are happily married, she is still enrolled in school.   She makes wonderful grades and hopes to one day become a doctor.  She says she has seen so many people suffer and die from illnesses and wants to help.

Sarah’s story is like many other girls in the world.  Child mothers and child wives are a VERY BIG, REAL PROBLEM out here.   These girls would be shocked to know that the Empire State Building is being lit up pink today in honor of them.

They would never imagine that the world cares about them this much!

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Changing attitudes about female education

The drilling team in South Sudan was starting to make progress, and once we were sure they had reached a place where they could be left to continue, we headed back to Uganda to check on some of our projects there.

First stop was Alela Modern Primary School, near Lira, where we had perviously constructed one of our sanitation systems.

Joseph Kony and the LRA had terrorized this school and community back in 2006; and when we first visited there in 2009, the villages were still recovering from the trauma of having had children abducted.

But these days, I see a much different picture. According to the school records, enrollment has steadily increased since we began working with the school two years ago, from 823 pupils in 2010 to the current enrollment of 1018. The teachers even proudly showed off the student national performance scores, which had also improved each year.

The administration very vocally credits these increases partially to the availability of nearby water and good sanitation facilities, saying it makes it easier for the pupils to come to school and stay there.

Although the benefits of clean water are obvious, access to decent sanitation has also had an enormous impact. A visit to most any school pit latrine is an eye-opening experience. The children do not like to use them. They smell terrible and are often littered with feces, as the small children usually relieve themselves on the floor, for fear of falling into those big dark pits. Although we are still collecting data to prove this theory, it is my strong belief that school pit latrines make young children sick.

Aside from being clean and free of bad odors, our sanitation system also has the added benefit of providing water and much needed privacy for adolescent girls, which is key to keeping the girls in school once they reach puberty.

Christopher Elem, the head teacher of Alela Modern Primary School, is very serious about keeping the girls in his school.  In fact, the school’s administration was recently prepared to launch a court case against the parents of 16 year-old Charity Atem whey they tried to make her drop out of school.

Charity Atem, Alela Modern Primary School, Uganda.

Elem admits that changing attitudes about female education is a real challenge for the school, as the overall culture is not supportive of its girls. Families keep them at home to perform domestic duties as soon as they are old enough. And many parents marry their daughters off as soon as they reach puberty. Although both of these practices are technically illegal, the laws are rarely enforced.

In Charity’s case, although her test scores were excellent, her parents wanted to get her married, in order to focus their meager financial resources on educating her brother.

The bright 16 year-old seemed extremely frustrated by the whole situation saying that her community thinks it is wasteful to spend money on girls.

Her friend Nancy Amule is repeating 7th grade after missing too many days of school last year and falling behind.

Nancy Amule, Alela Modern Primary School, Uganda

Nancy also gets no support from her community. She says the villagers not only tease her because she’s still attending school, when she’s old enough to be married, but her father’s friends also pressure him to stop wasting money on her education, saying she is of no benefit to the family.

In this culture, girls tend to move in with their husband’s families after marrying. So when faced with the issue of limited resources, parents often focus more on educating and nurturing the boys, which they feel will eventually be an asset to the family. Meanwhile, girls are primed for marriage at an early age, and encouraged to master domestic duties over learning math or English (Note: English is the national language of both Uganda and South Sudan and most jobs require that you speak it. But a multitude of tribal vernacular is spoken in villages across the region.)

Right now Nancy does most of the work around her house, especially the cooking. She spends three hours after school fetching water, grinding millet and preparing dinner. An injury left her mother with a weak leg, so although she spends her days working in the garden and fetching the firewood for cooking, by evening she is exhausted and Nancy takes over.

Both girls feel it is extremely unfair that their brothers get preferential treatment. When I mentioned the concept of gender inequality they both got very animated, saying that society tells girls they are useless and as soon as they have breasts and are only fit for marrying. Meanwhile, the boys get to go to school and often do nothing with the education they get.

Class at Alela Modern begins at 6:30AM and ends at 5PM. This means that both Nancy and Charity leave their homes in the dark to trek across fields and down dirt roads to get to school on time. But neither girl seems to mind. They are happy to be in class, even though the pupils and teachers must use flashlights to illuminate their lessons until the sun comes up.

For Charity things are going well. Because of the school intervention, her parents allowed her to return to class and she recently passed the national exams. She’s headed to high school next term.

But Nancy is not so lucky. Despite all of her efforts, she just learned that her father enrolled her in technical school. Although she had hoped to one day become a nurse, she will soon be leaving her studies behind. She says she will most likely learn to sew or paint furniture at her new school.

Clearly there is a huge need for parents to support learning. Providing water and sanitation to these institutions often helps give that extra bit credibility to motivate the parents to get involved.

So there is a ripple effect. In the beginning, having these facilities encourages more students to enroll in the school. This provides additional financial support to the institution. This extra funding then becomes an incentive for the teachers. And a motivated administration is key to encouraging the parents and keeping children, especially girls, in school. In the end, they come to school, they stay there and perform better.

“Women must be full partners in development, so they can lift themselves and their communities out of poverty.”  United Nation Secretary General -Ban Ki-Moon