The spectra of a 30-year-old having a grandchild among the Alur was unimaginable. Such young people should only be having a second child of their own at the very earliest, perhaps a third. Child spacing was well-regulated for child and maternal health. Such a young person would not be expected to have a grandchild. Getting pregnant at 13–14 years of age raises the possibility that at 30 years, one’s first daughter or son is 16 and probably also has a child of her/ his own as a consequence of child marriage or teen pregnancy! Abominable as this was, teenage pregnancy and child marriages are happening in Alur society today, even with greater frequency over our three decades of recent history.

Child marriage has historically been a vice in Alur society, and Alur custom was against marrying off young girls  before the age of 21. They had to mature properly. The boys were to prove maturity too by showing ability and capacity to provide for and sustain a family. Providing for the family was no child’s game. Today, some ignorant, dishonest, and greedy elders and chiefs misrepresent this historical cultural norm and make child marriage appear culturally acceptable. They marry off girls to receive bridal gifts but expose the children to ill physical and mental health, a cycle of material and intellectual poverty, child neglect and the malady of school drop-out, all of which perpetuate ignorance and disease, poverty, dis-empowerment and lack of self confidence. Child marriage was unacceptable and a shameful thing to do. Cross generational marriage in Alur society was also discouraged actively so that spouses married within their age brackets.

As a consequence of distortion of positive culture, child marriage today costs Alur community a lot in terms of elevated risk of children’s ill health and likelihood of school drop outs especially among young girls. Ignorance about
human rights and positive gender relations, lack of skills, poor nutrition and a cycle of poverty among the most significant section of the community i.e women are common. Some of the aforementioned ills can be traced back to child marriage and violence against women, girls and children(VAWG&C). Although physical violence in form of the previously common wife beating is showing signs of downward trends, psychological and mental anguish are on the increase with attendant stress levels especially among youth and in particular those in early marriages and unions.

Sustained efforts by CSOs like MEMPROW and collaboration with cultural leaders as well as lower local government leaders is helping to reduce incidences of wife beating which tends to be more likely when the power relations in the union are at the woman’s disadvantage as is often the case in child marriage.  For example, in the last 3 years, I did  participate in any wife beating case in my community of about 90 homesteads. This is a positive trend. The same good practice of collaboration can be achieved in fight against child marriage.”

In 2015, Ubimu/ the Alur king pronounced himself on the subject of child marriage, violence against women and girls and directed that his chiefs should report to the police anybody including chiefs who marry off, preside over,
arrange and or just watch children being customarily married or violated.

However, teen age pregnancy is complicating this effort for the kingdom. Young girls get pregnant as a consequence of casual sexual unions and run away to “marry” their lovers without any ceremony. The frustration of parents over such a childish act can be seen in their often thoughtless response of banishing the “errant” girl from home. Many times, the victim of child sex abuse is blamed instead of being supported. The young victim unfortunately looks for solace with the violator in many cases. The relationship between violator, victim and social or legal support systems need to be better unpacked for many parents and law enforcement actors to appreciate. In regard to the king’s directives to chiefs on the subject of child marriage, the responses from the elders and chiefs as directed is also not forthcoming as would be expected.

No reports to police or cultural authorities over child marriage have been filed by any chief as at the time of writing this piece.

In 2017 Ubimu/king on recommendation of Mentoring and Empowerment Program for Young Women MEMPROW)  was appointed by UN-WOMEN as youth Champion which and he  led the launch for a successful HE4SHE campaign that same year in Nebbi superintended by a representative from UN WOMEN. Since then, MEMPROW’s child-mother skilling program, positive leisure in sports for school girls and advocacy to keep girls in school is paying off visibly through reduced drop-out rates in MEMPROW supported schools where some girls have returned to school after delivery. Some even passed well thereafter and joined Secondary schools(case of Ayara Primary School in Pakwach). Further still, more girls keep at school even when pregnant until date of delivery. Negative attitudes from fellow pupils and school administration(Case of Wangkawa Primary School, in Pakwach) have reduced according to the Head Teacher of Wangkawa Primary School in Pakwach. MEMPROW therefore, returned hope to these girls from the specifically mentioned schools. More girls have hence joined MEMPROW clubs to benefit from their mentoring programs.

During Covid-19 lockdown in 2020-202, between 12,000 and 18,000 of school going girls and more out of school girls of less than 18 years of age could have become pregnant according to CDO’s, DEOs and DHO statistics in Pakwach, Nebbi and Zombo districts of Alur kingdom. This happened when they were home with parents. This statistic suggests that good parenting and related knowledge and skills is needed in Alur community and required in conjunction with traditional methods of mentoring. Ker Alur has not developed a strategy to track the nearly 20,000 teen age girls and the child-fathers of their babies to determine how many have fallen into the bondage of child marriage and how they are faring. `And how many dropped out of school and what kind of livelihood they encounter daily? This is an area of deep concern because the numbers reflect nearly 40,000 children out there all in need of support to re-invent themselves and become useful adults to themselves and to their babies and families.

Cultural Institutions and CSO”s can and should work together to roll back negative cultural norms, correct distortions about culture and reduce suspicion from cultural leaders against what they perceive as ”hidden agenda”of NGOs against culture.MEMPROW, etc have shown that they can work positively together to eliminate the horror of child marriage afflicting Alur society today.

Fortunately, more development partners like Plan international Uganda and TASO have joined Alur kingdom by supporting anti-child marriage programs and promotion of sexual reproductive health and rights for girls in communities. The Kingdom with support from Plan Uganda has drafted marriage guidelines aimed at stopping child marriage and promoting girl-child education in the kingdom using a basic Alur philosophy of Kura Matira. Which is a cultural value philosophy where conduct and actions should be right, correct, straight and humane.”Good for me, good for others too” The philosophy identifies many values: integrity, love, empathy, respect, sense of shame, humility, transparency, hard work etc.

Under Kura Matira Alur cultural philosophy, any sexual relations with a child is unacceptable and called “nyotho nyathin or balu latin” i.e ruining a child or in positive presentation means “letting children be children”. Kura Matira is a significant cultural resource which can be used to promote ant-child marriage campaigns.

Alur kingdom has got inspiration from Kura Matira doctrines and come up with visible public messaging using cultural platforms.For example: The king’s coronation anniversary 2023 is themed “Keeping Girls at School”. This theme is very much in consonant with MEMPROW ideals. Further still, the Alur Queen Mother has been championing “Kopu pa Min Ubimu” or the Queen Mother”s Cup where girls are empowered to play and enjoy football unhindered and to compete kingdom-wide. On the other hand, MEMPROW itself has specific games and sports promotion programs which could also feed into this culturally themed activity of Alur kingdom.As we may know, traditional mindset allocated football as a game for boys. Both MEMPROW and the Queen Mother are successfully challenging this mindset. Hence the annual girls football event is very popular and transcends national borders. This year girls from the DRC participated alongside their Ugandan sisters laying a foundation for a strong pan-African sisterhood. All these Alur kingdom institutional activities are meant to keep the minds of girls focused on education or positive leisure with learning. Mentoring and empowering them along the way, an approach already being promoted by MEMPROW in the kingdom.

Therefore,as a human rights campaigner specifically against VAWG&C and also as a social justice actor and cultural leader, I call upon all traditional leaders in Uganda to practice Kura Matira/Ubuntu/Obuntubulamu, an African cultural values based humanness philosophy and let girls remain girls until they are ready for marriage. Enrolling and keeping girls in school is one proven way to prevent teen age pregnancy; child marriage and promoting girl child empowerment.

Alur kingdom needs be supported to implement the translation and popularization of their marriage guidelines as additional effort to end child marriage in the kingdom

Article written by: Counsel Bob Opio Okech,Lawyer, human rights trainer, advocate for land rights, social justice actor, private pre-primary & primary educationist, cultural leader & Minister for Culture and Legal Affairs of Ker Alur(Alur Kingdom) UGANDA, October, 2023 for MEMPROW #EndChildMarriage Virtual Campaign