“In this community, when a girl reaches puberty and experiences her first menstruation, most parents consider them ready for marriage, and even if they are at school and a suitor comes, they leave school and are married off for the bride price. It is even quite unfortunate that these marriages are mired by sexual gender-based violence, and most of the girls actually return to their homes shortly after the marriage because they cannot withstand their violent husbands and end up becoming single young mothers and school drop outs at a very tender age” revealed Mr. Magombe Jonathan, the head teacher at Bubyangu Primary School,

Mr. Jonathan was sharing with a team from the Uganda Youth and Adolescents’ Health Forum during a baseline survey, an activity implemented through the ‘Giving Girls Voice Choice and Control’ project funded by the Girls Opportunity Alliance being implemented in Mbale district in the three sub counties of Bufumbo, Bubyangu, and Jewa town council.

His manifestation among many other community groups and individuals, including the adolescent girls the team interfaced with, demonstrates the critical need for a comprehensive intervention in a community that is short of intervention yet the most affected by child marriage, SGBV, and teenage pregnancy in the district thus hiking school dropout rates and worsening the completion rates as they girls reach primary five, according to data from the district bio-stastician and the District Education department.

The week-long activity saw the team hold open and honest structured interactions with key district stakeholders including school heads from the three subs counties’ being served with only two secondary schools (Bufumbo and Bubyagnu secondary schools), three primary schools (Bubyangu, Jewa and Buzalangizo primary schools), Community Development Officers, district probation officers, inspector of schools, health workers  from the local health facilities (Bumadanda and Jewa health centre III’s), different police departments including the child and family protection unit and Gender office, young people in and out of school among others delving deep into issues of sexual gender violence, access to post-rape care services, drivers of child marriage, school dropout and completion rates, while picking up their minds on the appropriate interventions that fit into the actual needs of the community.

From the findings, girls’ education remains a major concern, with low school attendance, high dropout rates, high rates of child marriages, teenage pregnancy, and sexual abuse. In these communities, girls as young as 10 years old are already considered possible brides, with most of them stopping at primary five or six as the highest level of education.

“If you look at enrolment at primary one, you realize that pupils are quite many, about 1700 but most of these are below the primary four level. When the girls reach primary five, they begin to drop out. Some are forced into marriage, others get pregnant due to rape sometimes by their relatives, and some are just inquisitive and are not informed about their reproductive health and safe sex practices and end up getting pregnant. For this school, the completion rate is about 30%”, affirmed the Head Teacher, Jewa Primary School

“In our community, when a family produces girls, they have a common saying: “My cows have arrived.” So, men make it a big deal for their wives to give birth to girls; other than that, she is blamed and called useless, and they keep finding other women out to try looking for girls”, said the Headteacher Bubyangu Secondary School.

Additionally, cultural practices like communal or family settlement or negotiation of sexual gender-based violence cases like rape and defilement have been a major hindrance to the authority, especially the police, in addressing sexual gender-based violence, among other harmful practices. “People in the communities of Bufumbo, Bubyangu, and Jewa have a tendency of reporting perpetrators of defilement or rape just to get a police letter or reference number to use as an extortion tool from the families of the perpetrator. Instead of reporting, most facilities make exorbitant demands from the perpetrator, with threats of arresting them if they don’t abide by them. So, if they meet and agree and their demands are met, they abandon or drop the case and refuse to cooperate with any further police investigation, leaving the police stuck.” S.P. Okongo Francis, District Police Commander (DPC), Mbale district.

The DPC emphasized the need for comprehensive sensitization of the community on reporting sexual abuse cases, with more emphasis on the health risks associated with SGBV that they don’t mind about. He says the community needs to be made aware of the importance of taking survivors of sexual abuse to a health facility to prevent the risk of infections like HIV, unplanned pregnancies and also attend to their mental health.

According to the principle District Community Development Officer (DCDO Mbale), Ms. Harriet Nekesa, despite all the SRH challenges the community is faced with, they remain with the lowest interventions in the District. This baseline study allows us to develop a human-centred design approach in our interventions through the ‘Giving Girls Voice Choice and Control’ project that will see adolescent girls and young women realize their rights and live to their full potential as we challenge the major SRH issues, including SGBV, by ensuring access to correct information, health services, and active referral pathways while working with key stakeholders.

The findings further inform the project to utilize the Gender Transformative Approach to challenge and also use the Every Hour Matters campaign message to ensure timely access to post-rape care services, HIV prevention, and proper psychosocial support.