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17th August 2009 'The Guardian'
Girls in rural communities like Katine have very little financial independence. But attitudes are slowly beginning to change
For the majority of girls in Katine, money is something that is made, saved and spent by other people.
"Many girls in a remote rural areas like Katine will have no direct relationship with money at all," says Barbra Babweteera, country director at Plan Uganda, an international NGO running programmes for young women across the country. "The majority of girls and women will never have any money or land of their own, but yet will work all their lives generating money they have no rights over."
According to campaigners like Babweteera, it is unlikely that many girls in rural communities will have any opportunity to earn their own income and they will play no part in any of the decisions taken about the family's income.
If girls do get the chance to earn some money, such as helping out in someone's garden or selling food in the market, that money is almost always considered the property of the family and she will have no say over how it is spent.
"Obviously it is difficult to generalise because every family is different, but for many of the girls we work with, getting money for the small things they need in their everyday lives is a very tricky process of negotiation," says Evelyn Okoth, of Ugandan women's rights NGO Mifumi. "They will usually have to ask their mothers for this, who will then have to try and persuade the men of the house to hand over the money. So something like getting underwear or even things like school books is a battle."
Being able to find the money for small basic items can have far wider implications. For example, it is widely acknowledged that the inability of girls to buy sanitary towels leads to lower attendance at school.
A recent Unicef report underlined the wider implications of girls' inability to find the money for things like sanitary towels. The report found that girls and female teachers often refuse to attend school during menstruation because of inadequate toilet facilities or embarrassment. This results in absenteeism for up to a fifth of school time, which "may very well be the ﬁrst step towards dropping out," says the report.
Campaign groups like Mifumi, which is fighting for better rights and recognition for women across Uganda, say the economic disempowerment of young women is at the root of many of the things they are fighting to change.
"If you look at many of the challenges we face and the barriers which exist preventing young girls from achieving their potential it all comes back to money in one way or another," says Okoth. "Girls are lured into transactional sex relationships with often older men because it is the only way they can get the things they need, which results in high numbers of teenage pregnancies and girls leaving school before finishing even their primary education."
Girls at Katine primary school say their lack of money is a constant source of worry for them.
"Sanitary towels cost more than UShs 5,000 ($2.50) per pack and every year you need new books and new uniforms to come to school. I also want new underwear," says Helen Ekoth, a 14-year-old primary school student.
Ekoth says she asks her mother for money, but the family doesn't have enough to spare.
"There are some girls who go to boys for small things like soap or sanitary towels, but my mother tells me never to do this. Some girls get pregnant because the boys have given them things and then they can't sit their exams."
In Uganda 31% of girls get pregnant in their teens, the highest rate in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Plan International nearly 40% of these pregnancies are unwanted or unplanned.
"If you're a teenager in a place like Katine, the only power you have is your sexuality, it's your only bargaining tool," says Cathy Watson, director of the Straight Talk Foundation, a Ugandan NGO that produces magazines, newsletters and radio shows for young Ugandans about sexual health and HIV prevention.
"It's a vicious circle because girls are using their bodies as economic commodities, which leads to many of them getting pregnant and being forced into early marriage and has big implications when it comes to sexual health, all of which negatively impact on their ability to fight their way out of their reliance on men for their survival."
The economic status of girls has more wide-reaching implications for the lives of women in Uganda. Watson explains that while sons are seen as income generators, many daughters are considered little more than an asset, another piece of property, and while this mindset exists it is nearly impossible to create opportunities where women gain some kind of financial power or economic independence.
Campaigners point to the issue of "bride price" as evidence of how girls have become commodities in many communities across the country.
While bride price at one time existed as a token of appreciation exchanged between two families before a marriage, things have changed. Bride price is now a major source of income for many families, with a girl's family asking for large numbers of cows, money and even land from the family of their future son-in-law to secure the union.
"Bride price is a huge problem in rural communities like Katine," says Mifumi's Okoth. "We've got a situation where parents are asking higher and higher bride prices for their daughters who are being valued on how many cows they can bring in. A lot of early marriages are down to the family wanting to get the highest bride price, and the younger the girl the higher the bride price, so it means a lot of the work being done to improve education for girls is rendered useless."
Some female MPs are now fighting for the government to restrict or even ban bride price on the grounds that it contributes to domestic violence, sexual assault and polygamy and has health implications for many girls who are expected to be bearing children by the age of 14 or 15.
The lack of financial power for women is also institutionalised by Uganda's inheritance traditions, which usually mean that women will never own their own land or business and be economically dependent on their husband and his family for their whole lives.
In Katine, Amref's livelihood programmes are trying to economically empower women by ensuring they are included in farmers' groups and village savings and loans associations.
Headteacher at Katine primary school, Ameel Didimos, believes a cultural shift is occurring among many families in the area who are beginning to recognise the rights of their daughters.
"Things have got better since I was young. There are more girl pupils who want to have professions of their own and more families whose aspirations for their daughters go past a good marriage and getting a good bride price," he says.
"At the same time if you look at our attendance register you also see that we have a long way to go before girls are considered equal in our community's eyes and this will take time to change for the better."
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