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Part 4: The sexual exploitation of adolescent girls in the Kanungu District, Uganda: barriers to the implementation of the “Sugar Daddy Awareness” lessons


All 32 teachers who participated in the interviews and questionnaires confirmed that they had heard about and/or are involved in the “Sugar Daddy Awareness” lessons introduced by U-SHAPE. They believe that it is important to impart SDA and sex education classes to their students as it aims to improve children’s health and gives them hope for a brighter future in education. Both male and female teachers think that sugar daddies, HIV/AIDS and teenage pregnancies are prevalent issues in the Kanungu District and feel that the SDA programme has been pivotal in educating learners about these issues.

Before collating the data, I expected there to be a disparity in gender relations among male and female teachers, in terms of reinforcing traditional gender roles. Owing to the patriarchal nature of rural Ugandan society, I deduced that this ideology had manifested in the education system and was, thus, oppressing female teachers by assigning them to educate schoolchildren on sex-related subjects. This is because it is a social norm for women teachers to make students feel more “comfortable” on discussing matters of sexuality “openly”. However, with the implementation of SDA lessons, ‘even male teachers have been brought on board, they’ve had an opportunity to share, this time they share when children are combined together, when boys and girls are together in the classroom, they are able to communicate issues related to sugar daddies in the class and/or in assembly’ (the schools’ inspector).

In reading literature surrounding education and empowerment in Africa, I assumed that the “hidden curriculum” was being practiced by teachers, hence implying a gender bias through stereotyping ‘on the basis that boys need careers and girls need husbands’. Therefore, if the gender inequalities propagated in teacher-child relationships, then it would be a limitation for young girls’ empowerment and consequently, a barrier to SDA implementation. It is suitable to argue that this study verifies an even distribution of roles and responsibilities between male and female educators in teaching SDA, which does not underpin traditional gender roles or gender stereotyping. Gender bias was not found in teacher-child relationships and so, was not a factor in ‘limiting the kinds of futures that girls are able to imagine for themselves’. The design of the SDA programme has been integral for both teachers and students in addressing gender equity issues, such as the risks of cross-generational sex, and improving gender relations which, enhances its empowerment potential. It has the ability to contribute towards attracting and retaining girls, from poor backgrounds, in school.

The themes which arose in discourse are: lack of resources/funding, training, time/support, and cultural attitudes.

Lack of Resources/Funding

Results from the questionnaires show that ‘lack of resources/funding’ was most frequently indicated by teachers (20 out of 24) as a barrier for putting the SDA lessons into effect. The “resources” that I refer to here are material (school equipment) and economic (financial).

During the in-depth interviews, teachers revealed that not all children absorb information well from the mainstream participatory teaching methods of: reading/writing what is on the chalkboard/in textbooks or listening/repeating educational songs. Children learn using a variety of methods: auditory, kinaesthetic, reading/writing and visual. As key stakeholders in the programme, it is vital to examine the capabilities of the children themselves; in ascertaining effective learning methods, it is then possible to cater to students’ needs. Presently, the SDA lessons are not accustomed to the needs of the visual learners as none of the schools have learning aids, such as a projector, to watch the UNICEF cartoon film that was originally shown by U-SHAPE’s facilitator of the SDA lessons. The teachers said that videos are beneficial to a child’s learning as they can see how an older man is luring a young girl into a sexual relationship and so, comprehend the “tricks” that sugar daddies use. All teachers disclosed that with a projector, they would not need in-class support from the SDA facilitator, only for initial training purposes. The senior man teacher at Mothercare accentuated that ‘when you’re introducing that (the concept of sugar daddies), it’s going to create a problem. Children will ask “what do sugar daddies look like?”, “where are they from?”, “how do they act?” and there is nothing to show them’.

Teachers mentioned that poverty is a causative factor for the lack of resources in primary schools in the Kanungu District. The levels of poverty vary as some schools are in a less impoverished state than others. For instance, schools which are located in the harder reach areas of the Kanungu District, and are mainly funded by the government, have more poor quality class resources than private schools. In comparison to the schools in urban areas such as Kampala, where there is improved access to electricity and where better-quality learning resources (projectors, computers, TVs) are utilised to aid sex education implementation, schools in rural areas are more poverty-stricken and so, have less availability of resources. Hence, a teacher’s capability to facilitate SDA is influenced by poverty.

The schools’ inspector testifies to this assertion: ‘because there are no facilities, such kind of videos have not been run in schools here… I think teachers would wish to have such gadgets… otherwise right now, facilitation is still limited, but with wanting these changes… the financial component comes’. If teachers are given access to adequate material resources for SDA lessons, and utilise them properly, it can allow students of different learning capabilities to ‘interpret the content correctly’. On a micro scale, this has prospects of empowering children in classrooms. Teachers articulated that if the students had multiple opportunities to watch this film, they could then comment and give their opinions – it enables an open space for communication and group discussion about risky sexual behaviour. Poverty, defined by the lack of and access to resources, restricts a teacher’s ability to “function” and implement quality SDA lessons, which has consequences of disempowerment for both educators and students. Since teachers do not have “control” over their resources, the capabilities of teachers must be appraised on meso and macro levels with respect to the processes of governmental and non-governmental establishments.

Firstly, it is imperative to examine the meso-level interaction between teachers and U-SHAPE. Teachers said they were promised to be loaned micro-projectors by U-SHAPE. Yet, due to the absence of communication, these were not provided thus hindering the implementation of SDA lessons. Respondents from both private and public schools agreed that there is limited government funding and no extra financial help is provided by either internal or external stakeholders to supply these projectors as they are too expensive. Secondly, on a macro level, U-SHAPE require economic resources (capital) from the government and/or other private stakeholders to fund the material resources for the teachers. As a key actor in the process, the state “controls” the means and access to the material resources that teachers receive. Since the Ugandan government do not have an agenda or clear national child protection policy ‘to guide those who are working on child protection issues’ such as SDA, there is very limited funding available for U-SHAPE. This implies that the government are independent of all decisions made related to SDA, at the grassroots level – in schools. It is clear that there is a dependency on funding for the supply of educational resources, through the wider social structure, which impedes the facilitation of the SDA lessons.

Lack of Training

After ‘lack of resources/funding’, the questionnaires indicated that ‘lack of training’ was most frequently mentioned (17 out of 24) as an impediment to implementation.

In their interviews, teachers uncovered that they currently have insufficient guidance on how to conduct the SDA lessons. They expressed that they need more training sessions, in order to absorb the content, and learn relevant techniques to effectively instruct their students. Participants stressed the importance of having all teachers trained, not just pastoral leads and senior men/women teachers. The pastoral leads and senior men/women teachers are well informed about the SDA lessons. “Other” teachers, those who do not teach P6/P7 or science classes, declared that they have not been adequately trained by U-SHAPE on SDA but they wish to receive first-hand information. They affirmed this as the reason for why they lack confidence and are “fearful” of teaching SDA, despite senior men/women teachers trying to train them. The head teacher at Kazuru articulated that the SDA training should ‘include others. In case I may not represent very well, the other one may’. Hence, increased access to social resources (intellectual knowledge) by means of sufficient training would ‘empower teachers to enlighten students’ (head teacher at Mothercare). However, 15 teachers, of both the interviews and questionnaires, confirmed that they had not attended either the Pastoral Lead Network or School Engagement meetings run by U-SHAPE where the training sessions are held. This may be because they are not adequately trained by U-SHAPE, there are external dynamics between the senior teachers and “other” teachers that I am unaware of, and/or the senior teachers are using insufficient training methods to teach the “other” teachers about SDA which needs to be explored further. Resultantly, this can be seen as a crucial indicator of why teachers lack in training or are not fully trained, thus acting as a barrier to implementing the SDA lessons.

Lack of Time/Support

All interviewees mentioned that one another problem they are facing in running the SDA lessons is actually having the time to teach it. Given that SDA is not incorporated in the written syllabus, ‘it is not an examinable subject’ (head teacher at Kazuru); hence, teachers feel obliged to teach the set curriculum with the intention of helping children to prepare for their exams. Teachers struggle to execute the SDA classes as ‘it interrupts class time’ (senior man teacher at Mothercare). The teachers commented that, they briefly lecture children on SDA during assemblies, in science lessons and during personal hygiene inspections but do not have a specific time or day of the week/month/term set for the SDA lessons. This infers that teachers exercise agency as they choose to make time for teaching SDA, even though it is not included in the structure of the schools’ curriculum. Given that educating students on SDA is in the best interests of the children, and also in the teacher’s self-interest to learn about sugar daddies as a new concept in sex education and to become more gender-aware, they are able to become empowered.

Some teachers confirmed that their sex education classes take place at least twice a week. Yet, this allocation of time varies across the other primary schools in the district. In contrast, some schools teach sex education only once or twice a term. The teachers admitted to not discussing the topic of sugar daddies all the time, but at least once in a while. This finding particularly draws attention to the relationship between the teachers and U-SHAPE. There seems to be a miscommunication on U-SHAPE’s part of how and when they believe that SDA lessons are run and how the teachers actually deliver them.

‘Lack of support’ was another hindrance of SDA implementation exposed in the interviews. Teachers claimed that they required support primarily from their peers, head teachers and human resources (the facilitator of the SDA lessons). Some teachers expressed they need attendant support from the facilitator because they do not feel confident in running the SDA classes on their own. For instance, since the schools do not have projectors and cannot show students the UNICEF film, teachers explained that they require the facilitator’s skills and expertise to engage the children in acting out a play or drama which is based on the theme of sugar daddies. This is to cater to the needs of the kinaesthetic and visual learners. At present, there is no system of accountability by U-SHAPE to ensure that sufficient support is given to the teachers as well as by the government in institutionalising sex education in schools.

The senior man teacher from Kazuru brings to light that ‘they (teachers) may be having problems for example because I said I am a science teacher I’m supported by the head teacher. Other teachers may not be supported by the head teacher or by other teachers or they might not be science teachers’. On the contrary, some teachers may not be supportive for they find the topic to be a “joke”. When SDA or, more generally, sex education is talked about amongst staff members at break or lunch time, these teachers dismiss it entirely and do not get involved in conversation. Therefore, for these teachers, their ability to implement SDA lessons is inhibited by the lack of motivation from their peers.

The questionnaires revealed that 20 teachers think it is not their individual responsibility to deliver messages of sugar daddy awareness and/or sex education. All 24 respondents ticked each answer choice box for the question: “where do you think children learn sex education?”. The options were: at school – signs on the wall, in school lessons, assembly, other children, parents/guardians, radio, newspaper, church and community events, other. Therefore, teaching the SDA lessons is a collective responsibility which necessitates support from micro to macro level. Young girls have the potential to be empowered, through the implementation of SDA lessons, with the support of: parents and guardians, church leaders, community leaders, health workers from hospitals, political leaders and the government.

Cultural Attitudes

Moreover, 6 teachers experience barriers to SDA implementation on the basis of ‘cultural attitude’. During the interviews, participants noted that some teachers, even those who have been trained by U-SHAPE, still maintain the traditional “African” attitude. This attitude regards conversations about sex in public, or even parents discussing sex with their children, as a “taboo”. The importance of informal institutions, such as the social norm of teachers being custodians to schoolchildren alike to parents, is elementary to the implementation of SDA lessons. This is because teachers can exercise their ‘decision-making’ power, as active pedagogic agents, to diverge from the formal ABC and PIASCY strategies, so as to encourage equal gender relations through safe-sex information. As the SDA lessons are not regulated by the government’s gender-insensitive sex education policies, teachers have the capability to break the taboo by educating children on cross-generational and transactional sexual relations and its consequences of HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancies and early marriage.

The schools’ inspector emphasised that ‘we’re saying now, change a bit… you may not have to go into detail, but you must talk about sex’. In other cases, some teachers explicated how parents have told them personally that they do not want their children learning sex education in school, especially not a new concept such as sugar daddies, because the children misinterpret the teacher and believe they are being encouraged to “play” sex. As a result of these curious students, ‘they (the teachers) get demoralised because even after all the sensitisation, and the effort they put in, some of these students go out and still do what they’ve been advised against’ (female teacher at Kazuru).

Especially for some girls, due to socio-economic circumstances of being poor and their parents unable to pay for basic amenities, they have no choice but to have an older “friend” (a sugar daddy) to engage in cross-generational/transactional sex in order to pay for hygiene goods such as sanitary towels and soap. Since Uganda’s HIV-prevention policies are vested in abstinence-only values from the early 1990s, which were proven successful at the time, the government have resisted prioritising the teaching of power imbalances in sexual relations as well as the risks of cross-generational/transactional sex under ABC and PIASCY. Instead, with a political incorrectness of sex education as endorsing “promiscuity”, young girls have been unable to differentiate between a friendship with an older man and a sugar daddy relationship. As there is no established law to protect young girls from sexual exploitation, since it is often connected to prostitution, this ‘makes bad for social and gender analysis’. Therefore, gender inequality is reproduced through ABC, PIASCY and the schools’ syllabus, as young girls remain oblivious to the risks of cross-generational sex.

Given that sugar daddy relationships are a socio-cultural norm in Ugandan society, there is no evidence to prove that the male teachers themselves are not sugar daddies. This factor cannot be ruled out as a major barrier to the implementation of SDA lessons.

Looking ahead

This study suggests a need for teachers to challenge structural power relations at all interactional levels. This research has implications for Uganda’s sex education policies on the grounds that they need to be more gender-responsive to unequal power relations. In openly discussing the nature of sexual relations, the Ugandan government has the capability to break the “taboo” in society which, at present, binds them to outdated and ineffective HIV-prevention strategies.

Despite this, poverty is still a multi-dimensional, causal factor for both social and gender inequalities in rural Uganda. This is administered by the state as they have the ability to “control” the network of all public and private, as well as formal and informal, institutions by means of perpetuating gender inequality through their organisation and processes – such as the school’s curriculum and the current sex education policies. The organisation of inequality through this structured system is thus an even greater problem which necessitates collective action from public services, non-governmental organisations and civil society to break down its barriers.

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Part 3: The sexual exploitation of adolescent girls in the Kanungu District, Uganda: barriers to the implementation of the “Sugar Daddy Awareness” lessons


In this study, both primary (interviews and questionnaires) and secondary sources (online academic journal articles, donor facilitator resources, government censuses and surveys, policy reports, and unpublished essays, concept notes and briefing papers by U-SHAPE) were used. The research is designed to address: teacher’s attitudes towards the SDA programme, confidence in teaching sex education, the quality of training received to facilitate the SDA lessons and problems faced by teachers.

The interviews were carried out in a two-week time frame. They were conducted in English with 4 teachers (including 1 senior man and 1 senior woman teacher) – 2 from Kazuru Primary School (a government-funded school) and 2 from Mothercare Primary School (a privately-funded school), 2 head teachers – of Kazuru and Mothercare, 2 pastoral lead teachers – 1 from KPPS (private school) and 1 from Kindergatten (public school), the local district schools’ inspector, and the facilitator of the SDA lessons.

32 questionnaires were administered, of which only 24 returned, at a STiR Education meeting at Great Lakes Regional College on Thursday 23rd June 2016 which was attended by 16 teachers from 9 of the 15 primary schools.

The discussion of sugar daddies, HIV/AIDS transmission risks and teenage pregnancies fell under the category of sexual behaviours and/or activities; so, it was vital to identify the sensitive issues and not ask personal or derogatory questions. Before conducting interviews, questions relating to the collective responsibility of schools in delivering the SDA lessons, what it aims to resolve, the hindrance that teachers confront in implementing the classes and sex education were constructed.

During this inquiry, it was important to be mindful of my positionality. According to the Bantu language term used by Ugandans, I acknowledge my position as a “Mzungu” (a person of European descent and/or outsider) and/or “Mhindi” (a person from India). Being a British Indian, Western-educated woman, I recognise that my privilege establishes a “difference” between myself and the researched, which has ramifications for the fieldwork. Nevertheless, my previous experience of volunteering with VU in the Kanungu District in 2015, combined with my gender, ethnicity and race, affected the fieldwork by creating an open dialogue with participants. Due to the positive bilateral relations between India and Uganda, my ethnic identity has been valuable to building respondent rapport as I am regarded as a naturally “honest” person by Ugandans.


Part 2: The sexual exploitation of adolescent girls in the Kanungu District, Uganda: barriers to the implementation of the “Sugar Daddy Awareness” lessons

Issues in the Country

The Republic of Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa and today, is one of the poorest nations in the world. In 2014, it was estimated that around 95,000 people were infected with HIV in Uganda. Specifically, in the southwest region, the 2011 AIDS Indictors Survey indicated that HIV prevalence increased from 5.9% in 2004/5 to 8.0% in 2011 and to 8.4% in 2012 in the Kanungu District. Of these figures, 3.7% of young women and men aged 15-24 were HIV-positive. In this age group, just under half of males who have multiple partners actually use condoms and only 38.1% of young females and 39.5% of males have a correct comprehensive knowledge of HIV/AIDS; this increases exposure to risky sexual behaviour.

Unprotected sex puts young women at danger of HIV/AIDS and unwarranted pregnancy; hence, Uganda has a high teenage pregnancy rate and HIV prevalence. Since little awareness has been raised about the laws and policies on abortion in Uganda, especially for poor young women living in rural areas, it sometimes leads to unsafe abortions and, irrespectively, girls drop out of school. In the Kanungu District, the situation of teenage pregnancies, as a result of sugar daddy relationships, has heightened the spread of HIV/AIDS ‘as more teenage girls are forced to settle with older men’. Therefore, “Sugar Daddy Awareness” (SDA) lessons, on the topics of condom usage and the risks of cross-generational sex, is significant.

Background of the SDA programme

The SDA programme is built on ABC and PIASCY, the existing government strategies, together with the SDA Campaign, which was initiated by the non-governmental organization, Uganda Sexual Health & Pastoral Education (U-SHAPE) and assisted by the charity, Volunteer Uganda (VU). The programme intends to inform children, both girls and boys who are in their penultimate year (P6) and last year of primary school (P7) in the Kanungu District, of the risks associated with cross-generational/transactional sex. This approach has practical goals of increasing adolescents’ knowledge of HIV/AIDS and condom usage, as well as the strategic goals of reducing HIV/AIDS transmission risks, unwanted teenage pregnancies and early marriage. Through SDA, girls are empowered to say no to sex until marriage, and are encouraged to complete school.

The executed SDA initiative in Uganda is a revised version of the “Relative Risk Information Program” (RR) on sugar daddies, which was carried out in two rural districts of western Kenya as part of the schools’ syllabus.

‘During the training, teachers discussed the material in the official HIV/AIDS curriculum and learned how to discuss HIV/AIDS issues in class. Teachers were also trained on how to set up a health club in their school, to encourage HIV avoidance through active learning activities such as role plays. Finally, they were given the latest estimates of HIV/AIDS prevalence in the region of study’.

The RR programme is based on a 40-minute session, conducted by an NGO worker of International Citizen Service. Its design consists of scripts and resources to elucidate the risks of cross-generational relationships – between sugar daddies and young girls. Evidence from this programme suggests that sugar daddy awareness classes changed the sexual behaviour of adolescents in contrast to the national HIV/AIDS curriculum which promotes an abstinence-only message. ‘The relative risk information led to a 28 percent decrease in the likelihood that girls started childbearing within a year’ and teenage childbirths with men who were at least five years senior. Teaching young people sex education in schools therefore lessens incidences of unprotected sex and improves use of contraceptives. Thus, my study intended to discover how teacher training was executed in the SDA initiative in Uganda.

The provision of SDA lessons was first deliberated at a community outreach meeting in March 2014 which was attended by health workers from Bwindi hospital, religious and community leaders, the local district education officer, the schools’ inspector, pastoral leads and teachers from 30 primary schools in Kanungu. Using a micro-projector, they were shown the UNICEF film, entitled ‘Sara: The Trap’, which illustrates the risks of sugar daddy relationships and, the findings from Kenya. During this time, teachers were open to embracing the same plan in their own schools and were even conferring provisional lesson structures – of presenting adolescents with local data about the risks of HIV in conjunction with stimulating classroom activities that are limited resource-friendly. As the SDA programme incorporated a participatory approach, the full involvement of the local community, children, teachers and families in planning and implementation was encouraged so that the programme can be sustained from the bottom-up.

The SDA lessons were piloted in 16 of the 30 primary schools (8 government, 8 private) across the Kanungu District in 2015 – one male member of U-SHAPE staff is assigned to the teachers. Presently, 60 teachers are being supported through the Pastoral Lead Network. In hindsight, SDA classes should run for two hours. The U-SHAPE staff member covers each school at least once a year to initially introduce SDA to the new P6 and P7 classes. Subsequently, the facilitator must go back each year to teach the next P6 and P7 class; hence, the need for teachers to be fully trained and supported. From the last school engagement meeting in February 2016, which are held on a quarterly basis and train teachers in SDA, only 5 teachers expressed that they felt confident in running the SDA sessions without support from the facilitator.

Research Objective

My main research objective was to elicit accounts from the teachers, schools’ inspector and facilitator of the SDA programme, in relation to their experiences and understandings of the SDA lessons, in order to uncover the barriers to implementation. I intended to explore the following research questions:

  • What difficulties are teachers facing in implementing the SDA lessons?
  • How have the ABC and PIASCY policies influenced the implementation of the SDA initiative?
  • How have contextual factors (economic, social, political, cultural) shaped the implementation process?

Justification of Study

This study intended to bridge the gap in existing research as the introduction of this SDA initiative by U-SHAPE is the first of its kind in rural Uganda. Published implementation studies of school-based sex education programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa are scarce. There are currently no published studies which specifically investigate problems of SDA implementation. For policymakers, researchers and education specialists, my results present how the SDA programme has actually been received by educators, their involvements in teaching the SDA lessons and sex education, the logistical and practical role that U-SHAPE has played in supporting primary schools, and teachers’ attitudes on the issues of HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancies and early marriage in the local area. U-SHAPE, as of yet, have received no funding from the government or other stakeholders. In understanding the barriers faced by teachers in conducting the SDA lessons, and thus finding ways to overcome them, the SDA initiative has the potential to be rolled out in schools as a nation-wide sexual and reproductive health education programme.



Part 1: The sexual exploitation of adolescent girls in the Kanungu District, Uganda: barriers to the implementation of the “Sugar Daddy Awareness” lessons

In the summer of 2016, I visited Uganda for the third time to conduct research on the sexual exploitation of young girls for my MSc dissertation under the umbrella degree  Gender, Policy and Inequalities at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). I focused on how and why the sugar daddy phenomenon (when older men offer gifts to young girls in exchange for sex) had prevailed in rural areas, such as the Kanungu District, and investigated the success of prevention methods that have been put in place to diminish this sexual practice nationwide.

The “Sugar Daddy Awareness” (SDA) initiative, which was built on the Ugandan government’s HIV risk-reduction programme of Abstinence, Be faithful, use a Condom (ABC) as well as the Presidential Initiative on AIDS Strategy for Communicating to Youth (PIASCY), is a sex education programme taught in local primary schools in the Kanungu District, Uganda. This sex education programme, which was inaugurated in 2014, intends to tackle the prominent issues of: HIV and AIDS, teenage pregnancies and early marriage by increasing children’s understanding of safe sex practices and the risks related to cross-generational/transactional sex. The aim of the initiative is to, ultimately, minimise risky sexual behaviour. However, this programme has not yet translated into effective practice as intended. In the last two years, teachers have experienced problems whilst conducting the SDA lessons, creating barriers in its implementation.

I carried out interviews and questionnaires with teachers, the schools’ inspector and the facilitator of the SDA lessons. Findings indicate that the main barriers for implementing the SDA lessons were: lack of resources/funding, lack of training, lack of time/support, and cultural attitudes. My research suggests that all the above factors are enveloped and affected by the level of poverty experienced in these rural social institutions which further perpetuates gender inequality.




To be or not to be… married, that is the question: Emerging perceptions of marriage in Kanungu, Uganda


In the UK, if a man approached a woman he barely knew and declared his “love” for her, whilst interrogating her with questions such as “how old are you?”, “are you married?” and “do you have any babies”, expecting to receive a response, we (society) would view this as an infringement of personal privacy. Nevertheless, when this happened to me three months ago in Kanungu, Uganda, I saw it as a matter worth investigating. I wondered, in this case, what’s “love” got to do with it? Why did the man, I barely knew, want to marry me? As a foreigner or, in correct Ugandan terms, a “Mzungu” (which literally translates into “white person”/of European descent), am I perceived as a figure of monetary gain? Or, was the gesture that I witnessed the conventional way of proposing a marriage in Uganda? As flattered as I was, however, my attention diverted to understanding the socio-cultural importance of Ugandan marriages – a topic which seems to be commonly discussed within the Kanungu community. Are matrimonies based upon “love”, consensual contracts, or obligation and duty?

To address these forms of unions, I asked the following questions to members of the public in Kanungu town centre so as to better understand their beliefs, values and cultural norms:

  1. What is the importance of marriage in Uganda?
  2. What is a woman’s role in the household?
  3. What is your view on “bride price”?
  4. What do you think about married men having more than one wife?
  5. Do you think that men and women are equal? If yes, why? If no, why not?

Many of those who I first approached seemed very sceptical about answering these questions without any notice beforehand. They felt as though they were being tested and so, affirmed their reluctance almost immediately. The responses below were received from a group of young men who were willing to answer:

  1. Marriage is good, to impregnate a woman (have babies, love the woman, arranged marriage)
  2. To cook, work on the farm – digging, plan for home – look after babies, cleaning
  3. A gift to thank the parents of the girl
  4. To satisfy sexual needs
  5. No, because a man has a good job *men laughed*
    *women spoke softly* – did not want to talk

What fascinated me the most was the way in which the local women refused to answer any of the questions. Even when asked directly, they looked to the men around them, exhibiting signs of confusion; thinking, “why me?” I could sense the cultural constraints on these women’s rights and options in this male-dominated conversation. There is an explicit power imbalance in the rural community whereby women are, habitually, denied their basic human rights: they lose their voice when in the presence of a man. So, how do these predominant attitudes affect the constitution of marriages in the Kanungu District?

1. In Uganda, a family which is created outside of an orthodox marriage is considered by society as egregious misconduct. Those who are not married are viewed as incomplete, incompetent even, and are not to be trusted; on most occasions, these people are ostracized from the social circle to which they belong. Thus, a person’s marital status contributes to their social status; it is a “sign of success“. Irrespective of your well-being (education, wealth, class, etc.), you are viewed as unhappy if you are not married. In his book Culture and Customs of Uganda, Kefa M. Otiso states: “because many Ugandan ethnic groups are communal, marriage has been a central means of uniting families, lineages and clans”. This aspect best elucidates the meaningfulness of marriage in Ugandan culture and exemplifies the pressure put on women, by the community, to marry young.

2. From speaking to a female graduate of Makerere University, I learnt that both cultural and religious factors influence a woman’s role in the household. She elucidated the significance of women’s responsibilities. She disclosed how “even working women must make their children, husbands and houses a priority because before a woman is an employee of some company, her first office is the home. If she fails at that, society considers her a failure at all other things. Women don’t have to work, they’ll only do it if the man cannot take care of them. But, this work is only a supplement to the man’s. Such a woman must remember that, despite how much she makes, the house is her first line of duty and that she is only a helper – the man is always the main show”. Consequently, women lose their autonomy and identity – becoming yet another, typified housewife. They are coerced into servitude; although these women may not see it clearly themselves, they are technically deprived from most of the freedoms written in The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.

According to the man, through the role of a wife, the woman is subjugated to child bearing: this is her “duty”. Otiso explains how this agricultural “society has placed a premium on children (especially males) because of their importance in the social support system, especially in old age – female children had not been as valued because they join other families on marriage”. Children are regarded as valuable assets since they help with farming and household chores. If you are married but do not have children, your marriage is deemed incomplete or cursed and it is usually the woman who is to blame; in many cases, the man will find another wife and this is accepted.

Given this pressure to be married and have babies, it comes as no surprise that Uganda is among one of the Sub-Saharan African countries with the highest ratings of child marriages and teen pregnancies: with girls as young as 15 becoming brides, even though it is illegal to marry before 18. Joy for Children-Uganda reported that:

“child brides are likely to become pregnant at an early age and there is a
strong correlation between the age of a mother and maternal mortality.
Girls ages l0-14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy
or childbirth than women aged 20-24 and girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die”.

Teenage pregnancies hinder both the academic and social development of young girls in schools; these adolescents are forced to advance prematurely although they are still growing, both physically and mentally, themselves – this is detrimental to their health. Being young, defenceless and pregnant is not the best position to be in in Kanungu as it usually means having to drop out of school.

In 2009, New Vision declared that Kanungu was one of the poorest districts in Western Uganda, with records of 19.3% of people living in dire poverty. Experts have distinctly linked poverty with child marriage and early pregnancies. A few years later, in 2013, New Vision revealed that “the district is reported to have one of the highest prevalence of teenage pregnancies in Uganda”. In their 2011 report, UNICEF discovered that 62% of children in Uganda’s poorest quantiles are married before the age of 18, versus 26% of women in the richest quantile. Since young girls from poor backgrounds are “immediately objectified” and indoctrinated at an early age to adopt the socially constructed role as housewife in this “oppressive system”, their future prospects (both education and employment opportunities) are limited. There are strong normative expectations for young girls to become both child-bearers and caregivers; hence, they are usually trained by their own mothers to help: cook, clean, work on the farm and look after their smaller siblings.

Unfortunately, a number of these girls from poor households become victims of sexual exploitation as their vulnerability provokes older men to promote cross-generational and transactional sexual relations. “The majority of these girls are victims of circumstance and married off to older men. In their struggles to make ends meet, parents are giving away their daughters for monetary gain”. The innocent adolescents are assured prosperous futures – not having to worry about money ever again, or gifts – in exchange for sex. However, as adequate protection is not always used, what these girls actually get in return is either becoming pregnant or catching HIV/AIDs. In many adverse cases, girls are left with nothing, and in the process have lost their dignity, as the men realise that they can no longer support them financially.

Consequently, action has been taken by Kirima Parents Primary School to deter young girls from throwing their lives away. Phrases are imprinted on the outside walls of classrooms and dormitories to publicise abstinence from sex and to advise girls not to accept gifts for sex. This method aids the prevention of child marriage, teen pregnancies and the prevalence of HIV/AIDs which, in turn, helps to keep teenage girls safe and increases their educational opportunities.


3. Hegemonic masculinity is predominant in a patriarchal society such as Kanungu; it is conservative, cultural practices like “bride price” which allows this nature to perpetuate. In 2013, New Vision recognised that one of the main instigators of teenage pregnancies in the Kanungu District is due to “rural folk offering their daughters to men for the gains in bride price“. Essentially, “bride price” or “bride wealth” “consists of a contract where material items (often cattle or other animals) or money are paid by the groom to the bride’s family in exchange for the bride, her labour and her capacity to produce children”.

Teenage girls are objectified as commodities; even in the absence of the girls, fathers advertise for their daughters and settle an agreement with the groom-to-be who has to pay up at face value. The problem with this way of proposing a marriage is that it gives the man a sense of ownership in the form of dowry; hence, before the marriage is even official, there is already an imbalance of power in the couple’s relationship. Resultantly, by practicing bride price, gender-based violence has enhanced.

There is no existing literature which surrounds the perception of marriage and the issue of bride price and domestic violence in the Kanungu District. Nevertheless, the work presented by CEHURA, which focuses on the Bundibugyo District, recognises bride price as an instigator of violence against women. “Since modernization the practice has been influenced by economic, social, and cultural changes and its historical integrity, benefits and significance has been affected. It is however the recognition that bride price could result or exacerbate problems of exploitation of women and increase the economic burden on men”.

One of the 8 Millennium Development Goals for 2015 endorsed the promotion of gender equality and empowering women. Within this aim, the United Nations Development Programme in Uganda inaugurated a National Development Plan to aid socio-economic development by addressing “the challenge of women’s decision-making at the household level, which is exacerbated by high levels of gender-based violence. It is noted that 59% of ever-married women aged 15 to 49 have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence”. In these cases, it is imperative to focus on the victim’s needs by providing adequate support and protection; a shift in attitude is required to lift these exposed women out of such hostile situations.

Bride price is a controversial affair. One the one hand, it is a sign of appreciation to the girl’s family. It also proves that the groom is capable of supporting the girl once she has left her family. On the other hand, due to the culture of love marriages, there are now more inter-tribal relationships and sometimes their understanding of bride price is not the same; thus, posing a quandary for Ugandan marriages.

4. Kanungu is a Christian-dominated district whereby monogamy is encouraged. In the Bible, in Matthew 19:3-6, Jesus says “the two will become one flesh”; this can be literally interpreted as a man should only have one wife and vice versa, not two or more. Similarly, in Corinthians 7:2, Christ expresses “because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband”. Therefore, most Christian men in the Kanungu District, who try to justify their polygynous nature (a man having more than one wife) with the reason of “to satisfy sexual needs” do not coincide with the Bible’s teachings; instead, they augment sexual immoralities.

One outcome of sexual immorality is the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS. Despite one of the Millennium Development Goals in Uganda being to “Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases”, the practice of polygyny exacerbates transmission; the prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS being 8.1% with 315 out of 6737 pregnant women being tested HIV positive. This is particularly dangerous for school girls who succumb to marriage at a young age.

Another outcome, which can be suggested, is that it aggravates domestic violence. If the man thinks the woman is unfaithful and vice versa, due to infidelity and committing adultery, they fight. Sometimes the man kills the woman because of this. However, it is more socially acceptable for a man to have more than one wife than the other way round. As the man is denoted as the breadwinner of the family, he is seen as having more power than the woman since he controls the finances in the household; therefore, it’s his way over hers – the woman must comply.

However, society has accepted the fact that Kanungu’s men will not restrict themselves to having one sexual partner since polygamy is legal in Uganda. Many male and female adults have said bluntly, “there is no man that has one partner, so don’t lie to yourself, accept it and find a way to manage it”. It is not surprising to find a man with several wives/partners. Nonetheless, there is a catch. The man must pick a woman to be his official wife by marrying her legally and then present her to the public. The other wives are acknowledged by the father who is financially responsible for them.

In their March 2014 report, Coffey identified that women’s voices need to be strengthened to lead to empowerment. Special attention is required with adolescent girls since they are most vulnerable; “their knowledge of land rights is low and they are more likely than older women to accept that a husband can beat his wife”. If these women and young girls’ voices are heard and critical matters are not overlooked, they will be able to improve their quality of life. The Kanungu District has the opportunity to unlock the potential of its women and girls; they should not have to jeopardise their future for the sake of their husband’s satisfaction by conforming to society’s ideals. By allowing men to have multiple partners, the progression of girl child education is inhibited.

5. Men and women are not equal to one another in the Kanungu District. The question asked was purposely designed to be vague as I wanted to learn how the public define equality – in this instance, it is by employment and status. Traditionally, “women’s” jobs have been both lower paid and less valued than “men’s”. Although women have the ability to do “men’s” work, both society and the women themselves acknowledge that it would be best not to since it will put a strain on social order, especially on the basic unit of society – family.

The Foundation for Sustainable Development discuss gender equity issues in Uganda: “gender discrimination means that women must submit to an overall lower social status than men. For many women, this reduces their power to act independently, become educated, avoid poverty, and/or escape reliance upon abusive men”. Thus, to tackle this matter, the Equal Opportunities Commission of Uganda launched their five-year strategic plan in 2014 which attempts to create equal opportunities for marginalised women. In spite of this, Uganda as a whole, let alone the Kanungu District, has not quite reached their targets yet; a lot of work still needs to be done.

So, how can the Ugandan government improve the future of their young girls and women in the Kanungu District? The answer is simple: education. Although “marriage remains an important marker of adulthood and a social expectation” in Uganda, it shouldn’t be the be all and end all of a young girl’s life if she chooses not to get married or have children. Improving access to education will open many closed doors for females; it will help to: eliminate child marriage, reduce teen pregnancies, grow greater awareness of HIV and AIDS to lower transmission risks, inspire career prospects, and teach adolescent girls new skills which can take them onto further education so that they need not be confined to the household or simply hold housewife status.

For example, advancements have been made in Kampala by using billboards to create awareness of HIV and AIDS – revealing safe condom usage and encouragement of testing. In the same way, it would be effective if the government adopted this method to promote the empowerment of young girls and celebrate the equality of the sexes – where both genders can work (in employment) and live (in a domestic setting) respectably among one another.

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Despite the fact that there are already billboards in rural areas increasing  knowledge of transmission of HIV and AIDS, these comparatively significant issues seem to be overlooked. Child marriage, teenage pregnancy and domestic violence are life-threatening diseases themselves and must be eradicated. They kill the very dreams and ambitions of many young girls, adolescents and women in the Kanungu District, and all across Uganda, who aspire for better, brighter futures.

Even though there has been massive improvement over the years in acknowledging: the relationship between bride price and domestic violence, the detrimental impact of child marriage and teen pregnancies, radical changes still need to be made so that young girls and women in Uganda are equal to their male counterparts. One solution, which will require a series of incremental changes, is for there to be a shift in Conservative thinking – transforming the status quo; especially targeted at the poorer, rural areas, where traditional Ugandan marriage customs prevail over many females’ life choices. Girls should be able to have a say in whether or not they would like to participate in cultural practices without feeling pressured by their family or society.

Additionally, not enough research has been conducted in the Kanungu District so presumptions cannot be made based upon observations of the other 110 districts in Uganda. Existing data on the prevalence of child marriage and teen pregnancies in urban areas cannot be applied to rural areas; hence, more studies need to be carried out, analysing the crucial issues of each district individually.

In line with Coffey’s vision to sustain a strong women’s movement to make developments in: “women’s equality in the workplace, reducing gender-based violence, and ensuring greater equity in national budgets, to name but a few”, society should champion female engagement in social and political issues – this would allow women (whether educated or uneducated) across all districts in Uganda to work together towards emancipation. Nonetheless, with Parliament delaying the passing of The Marriage and Divorce Bill, “which has the potential to fundamentally reform power relations between husbands and wives”, there is slow progress in closing the gender gap. Ergo, NGOs, charities and think tanks that endorse gender equality, including native girls and women advocates, must act together to lobby the Ugandan government and inform legislation to improve the future for generations to come.

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I would like to thank Grace Asingwire, who graduated from Makerere University in Quantitative Economics, for kindly elaborating on the topics explored in this study.

I would also like to thank David for translating the interview questions and easing the language barrier between myself and the participants. David also gave invaluable insights from his own knowledge which made it possible to write this piece. I am extremely grateful for his boundless enthusiasm and commitment to helping me see this individual project through to completion.