Gerald Kato is coordinator of Her Choice for The Hunger Project Uganda. He works hard to tackle child marriage in a country where 40% of the girls are forced to marry before their 18th birthday. But is this still possible, in these COVID-times and how does he see the future? Despite the major impact the pandemic has on the lives of girls, he is hopeful about the future: ‘We have seen that it is possible to change people’s mindset, and that together we can change the lives of girls for the better.’
Are you still able to carry out your work during these times, and how has the pandemic changed this?
‘Step by step, the lockdown measures are relaxed here. Slowly, people are going to work again and public transport, shops and public institutions are open again. Since the beginning of the outbreak, the implementation of the Her Choice programme has continued with clear focus on mobilizing and raising awareness on the unique challenges girls are facing in view of the fact that over 15 million young people are at home because of COVID-19. Normally we reach most of the boys and girls in school, but now that they’ve been closed, we also use Whatsapp, Facebook, tv and radio stations to stay in contact with them and keep on informing them. We are running radio campaigns on major FM radio stations within the project area of operations.
Knowing that poverty is one of the leading drivers of child marriage in Uganda, especially in the current COVID-19 situation, we have also invested in supporting and empowering girls in market-oriented productive vocational enterprises in areas of agro-business, craft making, tailoring, producing face masks, liquid soap making, basic life skills and entrepreneurship. Her Choice is now required more than ever: we see that the COVID-19 pandemic has a major impact on the lives of girls. The Her Choice programme helps us to empower them, so girls don’t become victims, but part of the solution.’
How big is the problem of child marriage in Uganda and what are the main reasons according to you?
‘Child marriage in Uganda still poses a huge challenge. 40% of the girls are forced to marry before their 18th birthday, 1 in 10 are even married younger than 15. According to the most recent figures, the percentage of women aged 20-24 married before the age of 18 is significantly high at 34%. Uganda’s teenage pregnancy rate is at 25%, which is among the highest in the world. It is thus clear that child marriages and teenage pregnancies are an endemic social problem that must be addressed to improve the social outcomes for children in Uganda.
It should also be recognised that the Ugandese government launched the National Strategy on Child Marriage and Teenage Pregancy in 2015. This strategy has been implemented in 30 districts and an additional 51 districts have been allocated funds to implement Child Marriage Action Plans. This helps us focusing on the leading drivers of child marriage in Uganda: poverty, sociocultural norms, no access to education and a lack of law enforcement.’
What aspect of the Her Choice programme is the most powerful to help tackling child marriage and why?
‘Essentially all the 6 strategies of ending child marriage through the Her Choice programme have been impactful: the combination on focusing on increasing girls control in decision making and mobilizing relevant communities is a very strong one, I think. Regarding strategy 1, THP-Uganda has supported and built the capacity of girls in areas of SRHR and participation in decision making processes. By the end of 2019, the project had built the capacity and empowered 15.341 girls in decision making processes at various levels. These girls are trained to speak out, to be good leaders.
A good example of this was the National Girl Summit of 2018 and 2019. During these events, attended by national level stakeholders like members of parliament, religious leaders, UN agencies and CSO leaders, Her Choice peer educators co-moderated the event. What really impressed me was that some of these girls didn’t even go to high school, but could make a big impact on policymakers at a high, national level. I remember 17-year-old Flavia who, during the National Girl Summit of 2018, was able to tell her story from her own perspective which made a big impression at the audience.
These achievements have been attained mainly because the project is built on the existing infrastructure and community systems of the epicenter strategy of THP-Uganda. This strategy unites 5,000 to 15,000 people in a cluster of villages to create an ‘epicenter’: a dynamic center where communities are mobilized for action to meet their basic needs. This holistic strategy builds a path to sustainable self-reliance, with the help of animators, community members who are trained by THP and volunteer for their own village. These animators are leading all our community efforts to support and carry out the six strategies of the Her Choice programme.’
What are you most proud of?
‘Seeing young Her Choice peer educators aged 14, 15 or 16 years from rural areas of Uganda, perform with confidence at influencing national events and speaking out in gender equity advocacy processes. I remember Rebecca, now a successful, deaf peer educator, but only a few years ago she was a very timid and pregnant 16-year-old girl from a deaf school in Mbale.
With the help of the Her Choice training program in life skills and SRHR, she began appreciating herself. She realized that life can go on, even as a deaf, young, single mother. Since then Rebecca has spoken at multiple national events, advocating for deaf girls to access SRHR services. Through Her Choice she was able to amplify her voice, being a role model for other deaf girls and young, single mothers. At the same time that gave her the opportunity to lead a successful life beyond the programme.’
How will you continue after Her Choice: which elements are going to last?
‘The Her Choice programme was built on the Women Empowerment Component of the THP epicenter strategy. All the 6 strategies were aligned to the existing core programmes; we envisage to continue to implement all the 6 strategies. Also, the visualization tool for assessing girl friendly schools was very innovative and we hope it will continue generate discussions around girl’s access to education among the education stakeholders.
We see that the Her Choice programme has raised the profile of THP-Uganda in SRHR national spaces, but also strengthened and deepened our women empowerment work generally. We need to see how we’ll keep this momentum and we shall certainly continue to fundraise for resources for similar projects in future.
I have no doubt whatsoever about the power of the Her Choice programme and in that respect I am still very hopeful about the goal to tackle child marriage worldwide by 2030. We have seen that it is possible to change people’s mindset, and that together we can change the lives of girls for the better. However, given the gloomy UN prediction (13 million more child marriages in 10 years), we will have to work even harder towards this goal. Discontinuing a successful programme like Her Choice in this light is very disappointing. Hopefully in the future we will still find a way to set up a strong, sustainable structure that can support girls’ empowerment.’