Fighting for girls’ education in Northern Uganda

Despite many barriers, VSO and its volunteers work with Ugandans to ensure more girls can go to school and complete their education

Students at Kabembe Primary School Uganda - December 2015 Credit: GPE/Henry Bongyereirwe

In Uganda, educating girls is not a priority in the districts of Moroto and Kotido.

In Moroto, only 6.4% of girls finish their primary education. According to the 2014 census, there are 23,154 girls aged 6 to 12 in Moroto, but only 4,786 of them (20.7%) are currently attending school. From January 2014 to April 2015, according to their head teachers, 445 girls dropped out of school in Moroto and 752 girls dropped out in Kotido.

In my new report ‘From the Ground Up’ commissioned by VSO – I investigated why it’s so difficult for girls to attend school there.

Poverty is a key barrier to schooling

Data collected from 20 schools suggest that the main barrier to a girl’s education is poverty. Due to limited finances, struggling parents see their daughters as a vital source of income.

Instead of studying books, their girls are brewing and selling beer, traipsing to town to sell charcoal, working in restaurants, weeding or rearing animals. In short, families simply cannot afford to send their girls to school when an extra pair of hands can bring in some money.

Girls are also forced to marry young in exchange for a decent ‘bride price’. Teenagers are often sold into marriage in exchange for cattle.

In Karamoja, the less educated girls are, the higher the bride price. The best preparation for marriage is to stay at home and help, not get an education at school.

Approximately 35% of girls drop out of school because of early marriage and 23% drop out due to pregnancy. Over 15% of married women aged 20–49 are married by the age of 15 and nearly half (49%) are married by the age of 18.

Teenage pregnancy rates are high - 24% is the national average but in some regions, 34% of teenage girls from the poorest households are pregnant compared to 16% of teenagers from wealthier households.

Traditional gender roles keep girls from school

Pauline Faughnan gathering data on what keeps girls out of school in Moroto and Kotido districts of Uganda. Credit: VSO

Educating girls is not seen as a good investment - even having to buy a pen was enough to discourage some parents from sending their daughters to school.  If there is spare cash, it’s the boy who benefits from an education. According to local tradition, a girl can always be married off for money.

A male dominated society perpetuates gender inequality, so household chores, child care and caring for the sick are perceived as a female priority. These tasks are so time consuming that girls are left with little time to attend school. 

Many schools are not ‘female friendly’ and do not encourage girls to participate. At best, these girls are made to feel like second class citizens or worse, run the risk of being sexually abused.

With few positive female role models around who embrace education, it’s difficult to break this cycle of harmful negativity.

Some girls attempt to finish all their chores and attend school, but they end up working into the evening and are so tired the next day, they’re either late for school or miss it altogether. Unlike boys, they have no time for homework.

Absenteeism and unfinished homework leads to knowledge gaps, falling behind and eventually girls dropping out of school altogether. Having failed their education, they are pressured into marriage. There’s also the trap of having to work to pay for their education – it’s a vicious circle.

Then there’s the perceived threat of promiscuity – even amongst teachers and the girls themselves – that school ‘corrupts’ female students. There’s a popular belief that most female students are having sex, which consequently drives down their bride price. The school environment cannot protect a girl’s virtue as effectively as her home environment.

Some girls persist in wanting an education despite these challenges

Pauline Faughnan gathering data on what keeps girls out of school in Moroto and Kotido districts of Uganda. Credit: VSO

The few girls who do have time for school face other challenges. Schools are often far away so it takes considerable time to get there on foot. Then there’s the poor quality of teaching, inadequate classrooms and infrastructure, limited books and resources, lack of security, hardly any toilets or running water, low morale of teachers and low achievement rates – none of which are conducive to a good education.  

Almost three quarters of head teachers surveyed acknowledged that facilities for girls at their school were inadequate. Attending school during menstruation is particularly challenging - a lack of changing rooms, toilets and even doors means little privacy.

In addition, a lack of wash basins, soap and sanitary products leads to poor hygiene.  With the absence of such basic facilities, it’s hardly surprising that girls stay at home during their period. Given these circumstances, it’s also no surprise that boys’ academic performance is better than girls.

Having established the key areas which need to be improved, VSO is working with local partners to transform girls’ education in Northern Uganda.   

VSO already works with schools and district governments in Karamoja to strengthen education. The girls and teachers that we trained there reported a more supportive and inclusive treatment. The new research shows that much more work is needed.

Read more on VSO

Learn more about education in Uganda

Sub-Saharan Africa: Uganda


Volunteer, VSO
Pauline Faughnan is a retired Community Development professional and Researcher at the School of Social Justice, University College Dublin where she gained her PhD. Pauline completed her third VSO placement in...

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