Ugandan activist Joan Kembabazi

Fighting for a world without child marriage | Joan Kembabazi

Even though child marriage might seem like a thing of the past for some of us, one in five girls globally are still married off under the age of 18. This means that for millions of these child brides, their childhood, education and future have been stolen forever. Uneducated women often end up having worse health and economic outcomes and their families are more vulnerable to climate change.

To free girls from this nightmarish practice, Ugandan activist Joan Kembabazi has been challenging traditional beliefs in her community and advocating for girls‘ education and empowerment. In this interview, Joan talks about why child marriage happens, what it‘s like to be a child bride and what needs to be done to eliminate this practice.

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Watch our interview on YouTube.

Or read my conversation with Joan here:

Joan, what inspired you to become an activist fighting for girls‘ education?

In 2012, I lost my best friend Gufasha Maureen. She was only 13 years old when she was forced into child marriage with a 62-year old man. In her marriage, she had to face many challenges. She was beaten by her husband. She got pregnant. She couldn’t give birth and she died. Child marriage is not something that is only written about. It’s happening. It’s a nightmare.

Why did the family force Gufasha to marry?

Her family was in a financial crisis to the extent that they could not even eat. Gufasha had to drop out of high school and help at home. When this man came and offered them two cows in exchange for their daughter, they gave her away. In our culture, if a man comes to your house and gives you a bride price, it means that you are taken. You are their property.

Credit: Joan Kembabazi

Why is it happening?

Poverty is definitely a big factor but I think the major cause is people’s mindset. Parents still see their daughters as items that can be exchanged for money. If Gufasha was a boy, I don’t think that her family would marry her off.

Are boys are seen differently?

Yes, while girls stay at home, boys continue with their education. Our traditions insist that girls don’t need to go to school because sooner or later they will get married, so why go to school? People believe that girls should be in the kitchen, do house chores and fetch water.

As I say, every time a girl is not in the classroom, her mind is idle and the society sees her as a grown-up. “Why don’t you get married?” “Why are you still here?” Child marriage is often the only option they are left with.

How can people think that a 13-year old girl is ready to be married?

Families believe that you are already grown-up. Just go and get married. Even their mothers were married at a young age so they tell their daughters that they will get used to it. No one stands up for these girls.

What is it like to be a child bride?

The inner life of a child bride is like a prison. Child brides don’t have a say in anything. No man respects a girl that is young. “I’m having you as a wife. I’m twenty years older than you. What are you going to tell me?”

That must be horrible!

These girls are usually very poor and have only two or three pieces of clothes and are waiting for the man to fulfil their basic needs. But most of these men are alcoholics. They tell the girls to work in the field and when the harvest comes, they get the money and go to buy alcohol. When they come drunk at midnight and the wife asks where the money is, she gets beaten up. Oftentimes these girls are abused in front of their children.

Credit: Joan Kembabazi

Do childbrides run away?

So many are running out of these marriages but where are they going? They cannot return to their family because their family got a bride price. The parents say: “That’s how marriage is. Go back”. So many child brides die because of domestic violence and mental breakdowns. They kill themselves.

What can be done to help these girls?

If we want to end child marriage, we have to start from the grassroots level. We have to change mindsets and empower girls. In 2022, we launched a campaign called Return my future, which educates girls about their rights and helps them to become advocates of change in their communities. We want girls to feel empowered and say “You know what dad. No way! I know my rights. I’m supposed to be at school.” So far, we have worked with eight partner schools.

That’s great!

We also help girls get scholarships so they can stay at school. We educate women about financial literacy so they can run their small businesses better. We educate girls about environmental protection and we teach them to create charcoal briquets for clean cooking and for selling. We believe that an empowered woman will not allow her daughter to be forced into child marriage.

What feedback do you get from the locals?

The response is really amazing. I receive phone calls from parents who say that the workshops have changed their children’s lives. Just recently, a woman came to our house and brought me a hen as a thank-you gift because her daughter loves education more than ever. This keeps us going forward. I quit my job that was giving me good money because these girls needed me.

Credit: Joan Kembabazi

You did?

Yes, in 2022. It was a hard decision. I told my boss I was leaving and dedicating everything to my organization because this is my calling. You know, we work with girls who don’t have any role models. They think that because they come from a village, they can’t achieve anything in life. I try to tell them that no one should ever tell you you cannot do anything.

And no one should tell them “Hey, you’ve studied enough. Go to marry!”

Exactly!

Do you see any link between girls‘ education, reproductive justice and the conservation of nature?

Yes! When girls have information about reproductive health, they can decide whether, when and with whom they want to have children. This helps girls to have the number of children they can manage and to have a family that will not depend heavily on natural resources.

With Uganda’s population growing, we see that forests are being cut down and wetlands are drained away because large families need more resources. Every time a girl is empowered with the information about reproductive health, she will be able to have a smaller family.

Also, the more educated the girl, the more likely it is that she will stand up for the environment and protect it. Just like me. Without education, I wouldn’t be helping my community and talking to you now.

What impact does child marriage have on the society?

When young girls are not empowered and provided education about reproductive health, it leads to a high population growth and a pressure on natural resources. This is even more exacerbated by climate change.

Another thing is when girls are held back, we continue to have inequalities. Just think about all the women leaders that you admire. If they were married off as children or denied education, they wouldn’t be there. Child marriage affects the lives of girls, their families but also of the countries. Just imagine having those millions of young girls married off every year in the economy. Our countries would be much better off.

Credit: Joan Kembabazi

What is the one thing that people can do today to make the world a better place?

Educate and empower girls and women.

Joan Kembabazi is the Founder & CEO of the Gufasha Girls Foundation. She campaigns against child marriage and advocates for girls‘ education in rural communities in central Uganda and beyond.

If you want to meet another amazing activist  fighting for girls’ education and family planning, check out my other interview about Niger.

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