By Monday Akol Amazima
Uganda is among the countries world over that are known for welcoming and settling refugees in camps where agencies and well-wishers including the government try to attend to their welfare. With some countries neighboring Uganda ever in conflicts say like South Sudan, DR Congo the number of refuges keeps on rising every other day.
Joy for Children from November 2020 to February 2021 carried out a survey under the theme Exploring the Missing link in the campaign against child marriage and Teenage Pregnancy during COVID19 Pandemic in Kiryandongo, Isingiro and Madi okolo. The survey carried out in the three districts among others looked at how the neighboring communities to the refugee camps are living with refugees and what the situation of the girls is like in and out of the refugee camps says Peace Namayanja the programs officer Joy for Children. According to Moses Ntenga the CEO -Joy for Children, the NGO has specialized in addressing the salient and silent issues affecting the girl child and has for years spear headed the campaign of girls not brides in Uganda.
Aniku Joan the district woman member of parliament elect for Madi Okolo says refugee -girls have been targeted as a source of cheap brides for some men. She goes on to say that COVID 19 made the situation worse that as a means of survival, the girls getting men to marry them off was and is seen as a blessing to them and to their immediate guardians. The same view is advanced by Kamurali Birungi Jeremiah the chairperson LCV Isingiro district who says that guardians looked at this as a relief to since burden of looking after the girls is now transferred to another person.
Unlike the refugee boys, the girls easily integrate into the communities as they are married off, elope / cohabit with men and are also taken as house maids. Bagada Geofrey of Kiryadongo district says empowering women councils in communities around refugee camps so that they can among others give mentor-ship to vulnerable girls would be a good idea.
Much as refugee camps have primary schools, when it comes to joining secondary school, the refugee children have to join the secondary schools in the neighboring communities where by only few lucky one make it to secondary school leaving the refugee girl that has not make it to secondary with an option of getting married. The other obstacle to refugees attaining education mainly those from the Francophone countries like Burundi and DR Congo is the language barrier. They find it hard to re-integrate into the education system of Uganda.
Ng’ompek Lenos, the former Resident District Commissioner of Kiryandongo and now MP elect observes that Local governments, agencies and NGOs should have a plan to empower and sensitise communities surrounding refugee camps on rights of refugees so that they can be the protectors of the refugees.
In cases or defilement and rape, refugee girls have no idea of where to go to, at times have no money to pursue the case. One refugee girl from Kiryandongo who preferred anonymity says access to services in the camps for the girls and women very much depends on how beautiful you are and your ability to give in to the demands of some notorious men. This has exposed girls to STDs and HIV/AIDS.
Cases of forced marriages are rampant where guardians give away girls to men and boys from the neighboring communities. This is mainly done for guardians and the girls through marriage get a sense of attachment and belonging to the communities. This in one way or another is seen as a healing process to make them forget about their situations back at home and predicaments.
As a result of unprotected sex where some girls have multiple partners in search of basic needs like sanitary pads, soap and Vaseline, cases of single child mothers are common among refuge girls. And this adds more pain, misery to the helpless girls.
Lucy Mary Atieno of Ecopads who has on some occasions donated sanitary pads to girls in refugee camps and schools says agencies that deal with matters of the refugees should look at giving skills rather than handouts. Short skills courses of 2 to 3 months should be the way to go so that the refugee girls can be able to provide for themselves some of the things they need that force them into disguised prostitution.
Finally, skilling the refugee girl child is a more realistic way to empower them. With the world learning to live with COVID 19, some donors might find it hard to continue funding refugees and with skills attained some of them can be able to sustain themselves and even further their education.