Conversations in Schools to End Child Marriage, Sexual & Gender-based Violence

On a sunny day in Aromo sub-county, the girls and boys of Oketkwer Primary School excitedly gather under a large tree. A group of classmates holding props are preparing to perform a skit they wrote on violence as well as their own sexual and reproductive health and rights. Over the past weeks, using conversation circles, a team of the district’s community development staff, locally based WOPI-U and Isis-WICCE, have been talking to pupils and teachers in Aromo about bodily changes and vulnerabilities to abuse that often come with adolescence.

Of the Primary 5 to 7 pupils gathered, 53 are boys while 85 are girls; however only 9 of these girls are in P7 and set to graduate, compared to 13 boys. This places Oketkwer girls’ dropout rate at 89% and boys at 75%, a trend that carries across Aromo. In Uganda, despite policies such as Universal Primary Education (UPE) to increase enrollment rates, 35% of girls still drop out of school due to early marriage, 23% because of early pregnancy along with factors like family responsibilities. (UNICEF 2015) Northern Uganda’s Lira district and Aromo sub-county are no exception with the latest study conducted in Aromo by the District Education Office revealing that 400 of 700 enrolled pupils have since dropped out.

“In 2013, Aromo was the leading sub-county in Lira with the highest incidence of teenage pregnancy, child marriage and physical violence.” Francis Okello, Lira District Community Development Officer explains. “At the peace expo we realized that the engaging of children on gender-based violence was limited and children’s sexual and reproductive health was not being spoken about in schools because parents think it is spoiling children” he adds.

As such, Lira district leaders partnered with Isis-WICCE and WOPI-U to kick start conversation circles, equipping female and male teachers as well as pupils to understand their sexual and reproductive health along with the related rights. The sessions include information on bodily changes, menstrual hygiene, sexual abuse, harassment, teenage pregnancy, psychological stress, the risk of acquiring HIV/STIs, early marriage as well as positive messages to encourage girls and boys to complete their education.

Messages in the skit by the Oketkwer pupils echo these lessons. The performing pupils declare, “Avoid gifts from men who only want to deceive you for sex, risk your health and waste your future” “When boys or men force you into early sex, and you are made to get married after falling pregnant, it is violence.” “If someone laughs at you for menstruating, don’t shy away and leave school, focus on your studies.” “Stop sending love letters and when you receive a letter report to the teacher.”

“Talking with children, we help them understand sexual and gender-based violence and how it applies to their lives by using everyday examples of abuse of power due to harmful gender stereotypes, attitudes and social norms,” Isis-WICCE’s Prossy Nakaye expounds. Through the circles, the pupils are equipped to make positive choices and champion a violence-free existence for themselves, their schools and their homes. As such, the Oketkwer skit also addresses issues like parents prioritizing children’s work in the garden over attending school, abuse of alcohol and intimate partner violence at home, emotional abuse, wrangles between parents over agricultural produce and economic violence.

For Head Teacher Fred Ogwal, the most important element is the tools provided through the conversation circles. He explains, “This gives children what they need to be able to live fruitful and meaningful lives but will also enable us to have a violence free society through reaching the future generation.”

Since 2013, Isis-WICCE has been working in Aromo sub-county, Lira district with local government, volunteer community activists, religious leaders, traditional leaders, health workers and the police to prevent sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) through policy, positive behavioural and attitude change in addition to enabling adequate SGBV responses.