The Girl Child: One Story of a Lost Dream
I remember the period so vividly. Yes, I do. 1992 to 1994. And I remember her name even more profoundly too-Jessica Akullo. She was a naughty, tall (3.5ft), light skilled girl with a glorious brain.
Located approximately 20km North West of Soroti municipality, it’s in Obiarai that we ever got introduced to the English sentence of “Good morning teacher, how are you sir/madam.”
We always recited that sentence in a synchronized manner every morning as we kick-started our first lessons.
In a class of 36 pupils, Jessica and I sat on the same row. She was to the far west end and me to the extreme east of the shaky muddy walls with grass thatched roof that we proudly called our class.
Then, the two of us didn’t see the shortcomings in terms of infrastructure. All we craved for was a chance to be in school, to learn, and make our families proud. And what more to show for it than share the number spot for two consecutive years.
That excellence earned me my first ticket to boarding school in Soroti town in 1995. With me gone, Jessica enjoyed a good spell of being the undisputed number pupil for a couple of years. Nobody matched her brilliance.
On completion of my primary seven, I went on to join a fairly good secondary school for O’levels (Ordinary Level). My dreams were still very much alive.
But even with my progress, I always closely monitored Jessica’s too. After finishing brilliantly her primary seven, her dreams first came to a halt and then crushed.
Jessica came from a poor family. Both her parents were peasants and could not help her pursue her dreams henceforth. She sat home for year, two years, three years still hoping for a miracle to happen. No, it didn’t.
Her life was shuttered.
Four years later, as I joined high school, Jessica had waited enough, run out of options and finally forced to take the only available one-Marriage.
Jessica’s price was negotiated to only a few cows and loose change (cash). And there she was. GONE.
Over the years in my professional life as a photojournalist, I have met and covered many replicas of Jessica.
And as the world prepares to mark World Girl Child day on October 11, a host of reasons stand in the way of the dreams of many of these young girls.
Some, valid and others, outrageously immoral. Diseases (HIV/AIDS), poverty, Pregnancy, disabilities, academic factors, arranged marriage (culture), among others
“In Uganda 49% of girls are married by the age of 18, which has resulted into early and unwanted pregnancies-all life-threatening risks for girls. Globally, more than one in three young women aged 20-24 years were first married before they reached age 18. One third of them entered into marriage before they turned 15,” According to a UNFPA report.
In Uganda, girls with low levels of schooling are more likely to be married early, and child marriage has been shown to virtually end a girl’s education. On the contrary, girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as children, making education one of the best strategies for protecting girls and combating child marriage.
All Jessica needed was a chance in secondary school and maybe, she would not be a mother of countless children; five, the last time I checked.
UNFPA further states that preventing child marriage will protect girls’ rights and help reduce their risks of violence, early pregnancy, HIV infection, and maternal death and disability, including obstetric fistula.
Enactment of appropriate legislation like, increasing the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18 and raising public awareness about child marriage as a violation of girls’ human rights, Mobilize girls, boys, parents, leaders, and champions to change harmful social norms, promote girls’ rights and create opportunities for them, making easily available, free education for children from poor backgrounds among others would save many young girls dreams.
From my last encounter with Jessica, her dreams have been reduced to fantasy. “Look at you,” she tells me. “That’s what I want for my children in the future.”