The 4th Webinar organised by Uganda Youth and Adolescents Health Forum in partnership with She Decides Uganda and Girls Not Brides, took place on the 28th of May 2020 at 4:00 pm. The webinar had 5 panellists from various organisations including Yvette Kathurima Muhia, Head of senior Engagement Girls not Brides (Nairobi, Kenya), Timothy Oboth from Plan International Uganda, Annette K Ashaba from Girls First Fund, Sheila Kulubya from World Bank Uganda and Faridah Luanda a Change Champion at UYAHF and refugee in Kyaka II settlement.

The Webinar was moderated by Winifred Apio, Program Manager at UYAHF, and was attended by 60 participants (27 men and 33 women) with an overall goal of discussing the ongoing problems that girls and women are facing amidst COVID-19, especially with relation to gender inequalities and the rise of child marriage.

The moderator stated that Uganda has the 16th highest rate of child marriage in the world and the 10th highest number of child brides globally, with 787,000 reported child brides.[1] This situation is further exacerbated for girls living in marginalized, vulnerable, and hard to reach communities. Under-reporting of sexual or gender-based violence cases, including child marriage, remains a major concern. It remains a difficult and under-report issue due to a variety of factors including; fear of stigma, shame, family reaction and dissolution, perception of sexual or gender-based violence as a private matter, and lack of confidence in reporting channels and the justice system as a whole.

Although there is still no clear or exact data on the number of child marriages that have taken place during this pandemic, the Ebola crisis has shown that girls and women are disproportionately affected, especially amongst the poorest and socially marginalized groups[4]. Pandemics destabilize societies and often lead to breakdowns in family and community structures as a result of; loss of household income and lack of access to schooling due to closures. Moreover, child marriage and the needs of girls are often overlooked in crisis situations. Experience from other emergency contexts highlights the need for urgent action to both prevent and respond to the increased risk of child marriage and violence faced by girls and women.

The Panel:
Yvette Kathurima from Girls Not Brides shared a presentation on child marriage in the wake of COVID-19. A brief background on the current COVID-19 situation was given and the impact on communities was highlighted. She also presented key considerations to be taken up as responses or preventions. Girls Not Brides developed a brief in April 2020 on “COVID-19 and child, early and forced marriage: an agenda for action” and why it is important for governments not to drop the ball on this topic. In this brief, 4 pathways were highlighted through which COVID-19 impacts the rise of child marriage: education, health, increase in violence against girls, and economic impact.

Faridah Luanda, a Change Champion at UYAHF and refugee in Kyaka II Settlement, Kyegegwa district shared the experiences and challenges young girls and women are facing and what puts them at risk of child marriage. She stated that early and forced marriages are very common in refugee settlements due to pre-existing poverty, gender inequality, and lack of education. However, she states that the situation has worsened due to lockdown. She confirmed to have been supporting her community with making re-usable pads, tippy taps, and masks so as to make young girls busy and active but also pinning posters in community centres with messages of keeping safe while at home.

Timothy Oboth from Plan International Uganda highlighted the importance and value of education as a means to preventing and ending child marriages, and the plans for post-pandemic solutions. There is often a higher rate of school dropouts due to pandemics. COVID-19 continues to worsen existing challenges that women and girls face, examples of these challenges are unemployment, child marriages, but also belief systems in communities that are largely shaped by social norms and gender inequality, where parents place more value in educating boys than girls.

Sheila Kulubya from World Bank Uganda shared how to get the government to notice and recognize the importance of prioritizing efforts to cut down the growing numbers of child marriage amidst COVID-19 rather than waiting to address it after it has happened. Conversations like this Webinar bring out these crucial messages and highlight the importance of this problem. It shows the importance of raising awareness and sensitizing, demands action, and creates partnerships and collaborations.

Annette K Ashaba from Girls First Fund began with a brief introduction to the organization. Girls First Fund is a fairly new organization that advocates for community-led efforts to end child marriages. The community-based organizations are close to the girls and therefore are able to make greater changes and currently working with 34 grantees in Uganda. Annette mentioned the importance of developmental partners in the prevention of child marriage in offering unique solutions to fighting child marriage during this pandemic.

• Development partners need to collaborate and create partnerships
• Encourage the Ministry of Education to change their way of thinking. There is a need to think in terms of realistically enabling youth
• Collective advocacy through civil society and development partners including inter-religious councils coming together to advocate against child marriage
• Learning from past pandemics like the Ebola crisis is needed to derive solutions on how we can stop the spread of COVID-19
• Mechanisms need to be created in order to protect the girl’s dignity and access to education
• Shock-responsive systems in place which involve accurate data as part of the planning, monitoring, and evaluation process
• Gender transformative programming in order to address the perpetuating gender inequalities and challenge gender inequalities as social norms
• Out of the box, flexible thinking to address child marriage more unconventionally and innovatively
• Deeper involvement, support, and engagement from CSO’s, both during and after the pandemic, with refugees and girl-refugees that have experienced child marriage, teenage pregnancy or sexual abuse/exploitation