By Rogers Atukunda
A total of 3,796 girls aged between 10-19 years were impregnated in Kitgum District in a space of two years.
Michael Ogweng, Senior Probation and Social Welfare Officer Kitgum District, said this happened between January 2019 and December 2020.
Of these, 2,018 teenage pregnancies were reported in 2019 but the figure reduced gradually to 1,778 in 2020.
The reduction is attributed to ChildFund Uganda which, in partnership with Acholi Child and Family Program (ACP) with collaboration from Kitgum District Local Government, implemented a project to protect children by empowering communities with information and tools to fight child abuse.
According to Ogweng, these figures include only those girls who went to health facilities for antenatal services while many others fear and don’t go to medical facilities.
He attributed this rise in teenage pregnancies to poor parenting, saying parents only give birth to children and leave them in the hands of God.
He said the Covid19 pandemic and closure of schools had a negative impact on children yet many parents have with no plans to raise them.
“It used to be normal to marry a child here. No body was complaining. Because of this project, people realized that child marriage is a violation and puts the child at risk. They have now started reporting cases of child marriages,” Ogweng said on Tuesday.
He said the highest number of child marriages were reported in Orom sub-county.
Other abuses included; 5 cases of child marriages, 370 cases of child neglect, 307 cases of physical abuse and 72 defilement cases, to mention but a few.
Ogweng says they have been encouraging reporting of such cases and referral pathways as a coordination mechanism.
“Every month, we meet at the district with all partners (social sector working groups) to discuss child protection, share statistics, understand the situation on the ground and make tailored action plans,” he noted.
He said they also recruited probation officers at sub-county level, hold radio talkshows, dialogue with communities and train duty-bearers.
As such, his office now serves as a referral and coordination centre.
To address the challenge of child marriages and teenage pregnancies, leaders held intensive awareness per household, radio talkshows and message dissemination in churches on family planning so people produce the number of children they can manage.
“We are disseminating parental guidelines with a view that children will experience abuse once again when they return home following a presidential directive to close schools,” Ogweng pointed out.
He said the children are usually safer in schools because they get information.
“In homes, parents don’t say anything to children as if it’s something not good to hear. The control measures in homes are not serious. Worse, some parents are never home.”
He advised parents to create time for their children, talk to them, guide them, show them love so as to minimize chances of abuse.
To children, he advised them to read books, form discussion groups, go for counseling and guidance, psychosocial support and follow SOPs instead of loitering around.
Empowering Communities to Protect Children
With funding from ChildFund Korea, the three-year Empowering Communities to Protect Children (ECP) program aimed to ensure children living in the project areas are safe and well protected from all forms of violence at family and community level.
The project also supported communities access improved child protection services, strengthened systems/structures and improved the legal framework.
The project empowered communities and schools to fight against all forms of violence and trained social workers, religious and cultural leaders by mentoring and building their capacity for continuity of the project.
Local councils and sub-county leaders were also empowered to ensure welfare of children against abuses ranging from neglect, abandonment (orphans) and other cases.
According to Ogweng the project provided a platform for engaging children with legislation, for example, they took children to parliament where they communicated their issues to the Parliamentary Forum on Children Affairs.
“Some parliamentarians were even crying. They were shedding tears as they listened to children’s problems.”
He said after two months, parliament took a decision and approved a budget for nodding disease syndrome.
Lapyem Emmanuel, Kitgum District Councillor, said ChildFund’s project helped the district address the welfare of children and mitigate abuses.
“Now leaders know they have the mandate to protect children,” he said, adding:
“This helped change the attitudes and negative social norms that put a boy child above a girl child when it comes to education as well as appreciating the need to protect children.”
The project also awakened parents to realize child rights and responsibilities.
Children were also empowered to become representatives of fellow children.
Lapyem cited a child representative who was sponsored by ChildFund to go to United Nations headquarters in New York city (USA) and has now become a role model to children in the district.
Lapyem has served as Secretary for Health Education and Community Based Services as well as Kitgum District Vice Chairperson.
He said one of the biggest challenges has been markets around schools which disrupt learning on market days.
“They usually close with discos tempting boarding school children. In the long run, this may lead to school drop outs rampant in Lagoro and Kitgum-Matidi sub-counties,” he noted.
He added: “The situation was really alarming but now, everyone is alerted to protect children.”