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Uganda: Why the classroom still eludes Karimojong girls

©The New Vision 2006
Good initiative: William Igune, the Moroto District Inspector of Schools, talks to a girl-child in a class at Naitakwae Primary School.

13 September 2006 - Christine Lamuria, 11, and Lucy Nate, 13, primary three pupils of Naitakwae Primary School in Moroto district, are saddened by the possibility that the Karimojong deep-rooted cultural beliefs might shatter their dreams of becoming nurses when they complete school.

“I have seen my 13-year-old friends being given away to men. I hope I do not get married off the same way before I finish studying,” Nate says.

Lamuria also believes education will make her “look smart and clean.”

Peggy Ilukol, the headmistress of Naitakwae says in Karamoja, once a girl reaches 13 years or starts developing breasts, her parents take her out of school and find her a husband who normally pays between 60-100 cows as bride price.

Since the introduction of education by missionaries in Uganda in the 1930s, Karamoja has not readily embraced it. Even the alternative Basic Education for Karamoja has not made much improvement.

During the Second World War, colonialists recruited Karimojong children in the Kings African Rifles. As a result, parents were deprived of labour to look after their cattle and some of the children did not return. Because the pen was used to register the recruits, cultural leaders cursed it and everything it represented. The pen was considered (some still do) a colonial instrument of oppression.

Today, the Karimojong continue to view formal education as interfering with their culture. The boys are also taken out of class to look after livestock but it is the girls that the Karimojong parents have specifically vowed to keep out of classrooms.

“In Karamoja, parents believe that if their daughters attain formal education they will become less competent wives, prostitutes or run off to marry non-Karimojong men who will divert them from the Karimojong ways of life,” says Paul Abul, Moroto’s District Education Officer.

Girls stay at home to do domestic chores or in odd jobs within town to get money for food. When they turn 13, they are married off.

As part of the initiative to entice female children into classrooms, the Government and the World Food Programme (WFP) introduced a food ratio policy. However, some parents drag their girls out of class soon after receiving the rations.

The WFP then decided that each female pupil qualified to get 25kg of soy flour and three litres of cooking oil if she attended 80% of the lessons in a term.

“The policy here now is ‘No food no school.’ The Karimojong behave as though they are being bribed to go to school,” says Abul. Such skewed perceptions have prompted the United Nations Children Education Fund (UNICEF) to intervene with the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI). Their campaign aims at sensitising the Karimojong about the importance of educating the girl-child. It also encourages girls to go to school. Conceived by the United Nations in 2003, UNGEI was launched in Uganda in 2004. By 2005, it was operating in 10 districts in the North and East. On July 21, 2006, it was officially launched in Moroto.

Naitakwae Primary School is one of the demonstration schools for UNGEI.

In the blistering mid-morning heat, barefoot children with pale faces curiously gather around us. The majority are wearing uniform and few have tattered ordinary clothes. It is break time. Ilukol, the headmistress, says the school has 560 pupils with about 150 girls. But at break time, there were less than 50 pupils in school.

After break we walk into the P.3 class. There are about 20 desks but only half are occupied by mostly cheerful female pupils who have been sent to school by their mothers.

“The boys have taken cattle for grazing and the girls are either busy with domestic work or in town doing odd jobs to get money for food. The ones present are in the boarding section,” she says.

The 2002 population census revealed that 78.7% of school-age going children (6-12 years) in Moroto have never been to school, 50.3% were girls and 81.8% of children between 13 -17 years have never accessed education, of which 50.1% were girls.

The Net Enrolment Ratio (NER) at primary school level stands at 34.33%, with that of females being 27.92%. The NER is the number of pupils of recommended age group that should be in school. In other neighbouring districts –– Nakapiripit and Kotido, the NER for female pupils is 35.61% and 24.94% respectively.

Girls’ enrolment in Moroto’s only two government-aided secondary schools show that more boys are enrolled annually. In 2005, a total of 839 girls enrolled compared to 1, 307 boys. In 2004, 920 girls enrolled compared to 1,188 boys.

Hellen Pulkol, the vice-chairperson of Nakapiripit district, said only 10 to 15 girls get into secondary school.

Recent increase in enrolment and retention rates is attributed to the food rations. Since 1996 when female enrolment was 2,611, figures have been increasing by an average of about 1,000 pupils each year.

Because some girls in the lower classes stopped studying soon after receiving the take home ration, the food policy was shifted to P.5 - P.7 so as to encourage girls to study up to the higher primary levels. Subsequently, the dropout in P.1 and P.2 in Naitakwae and other primary schools increased.

However, girls’ enrolment for 2006 has increased. Out of about 76,483 school-age-going children, 22,180 are in primary schools. But even girls entitled to receiving rations drop out when they clock 13, and during the rainy season, attendance fluctuates because the girls stay home to dig.

During a three-day UNICEF conference at Moroto district headquarters in July, district education and administrative officers from Karamoja region discussed ways to help the Karimojong value education for what it can do for their girl children and not merely as a place for them to go and get food. Some of the strategies discussed include:

  • Compulsory UPE programme to ensure parents send their girls to school.
  • Build separate toilets for girls and boys to motivate girls into attending school.
  • Initiate girl-only boarding schools and have female role models work in the community to encourage girls stay in school.
  • Set up a scholarship scheme for sending girls to university so that more girls can access tertiary education.


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