“How Many Girls Have You Slept With?” The Normalization of Teenage Mothers in the Alur Culture

This is possibly one of the most depressing blogs I have written. The blog is not in any way an attack on the Alur Culture but it simply provides context because teenage mothers exist in every ethnic group. It is thus limited to the Alur in Nebbi/Jonam in Pakwach as most of what I have witnessed is specific to this culture.

For the music lovers, ‘Not a Girl, Not yet a Woman’ was a popular Britney Spears song that graced the airwaves for long. The content of the song may not explain the plight of the young girls in West Nile but the title offers a good summary. Girls as young as 11, 12 or 13 holding babies are a common place in this area. In 2014, I visited a Catholic leaning school in Nebbi District. A hasty tour was organized and to show us the gravity of the early pregnancies on girl child education. In Primary One, there were nearly equal numbers of girls and boys, about 150. Come to Primary 7, all the girls had vanished along the way except 3! Lost to teenage pregnancies! Several reasons were advanced for this shocking reality including poverty and Traditional marriages! Yes, Traditional marriages.

Fast forward to 2018, this time, I came face to face with a collection of about 50 Pakwach District residents composed of mostly teenage mothers and their parents. Fathers too were present. More than poverty, the group faulted traditional marriages as a more potent threat for their daughters more than poverty. They said that actually, even well to do families by local standards had a similar problem so it can’t be poverty as the main cause of the teenage pregnancies. Majority of the mothers present confessed to having been victims too of the same fate as had befallen their daughters!

What happens during the traditional marriage? I will restrict myself to the process. The function is rather expansive and takes up to three days, complete with fanfare, and reckless abandon from young men and women. The groom and his entourage will camp at the girl’s home as he pays bride price to which friends and family have made contributions. Apparently friends generously contribute because they expect a reward, in form of sex over the 3 days! Thus booze must be in plenty and the music must keep blaring as the young men and women make merry.

It is at this function that sex binges and outright rape of young girls are common place. Whereas some young boys and girls plan to have sex at the elaborate marriage ceremony, others are victims of rape, sometimes gang rape. They may not even identify their offenders or the boy responsible for the pregnancy if they end up pregnant. Many babies have thus become what is known as Wonumbe-fatherless children.

The young girls become a burden to the parents because on top of dropping out of school, they add another child to their strained social and economic status. These girls are referred to as Nyaridi gonyire (a tiny girl child with a baby). Those that attempt to get married and eventually return to their parents are known as Moyo ngonda (totally defeated in marriage). They become depressed and look much older than their actual age (ugegere). Commonly, they may be referred to as LC1 because it is assumed that she was born on the same village, married/stays on the same village and her opportunities are limited to that one village which in actual sense may have zero opportunities to talk about.

The psychological trauma is visible on their faces but very hard to quantify. Having grown up with all efforts being focused on turning the young girls into very good wives by their mothers, marriage and child bearing should have been such a novelty to the girls but this is not the case. They are not prepared for anything else except marriage. Education seems to be relegated to nothingness. This does not help at all.

Why do girls appear at such dangerous marriage expeditions?
It was reported that some parents pressure their children into attending these ceremonies knowing that they will possibly get pregnant. The expectation in return is a few cows and goats. Unfortunately, few boys own up and show up at the girl’s parents to offer the bride price.

There is also peer pressure from the girls and the boys themselves. They find the allure of a 3 day disco hard to resist and they sneak out of their huts (most stay in separate huts) to attend the night discos. Some have heard about the sex binges are not afraid to be part! It is normalized!!!

However, what institutionalizes their girl’s presence is social pressure. Should a parent refuse their son or daughter to attend, there are sanctions including the neighbors refusing to attend functions at this parent’s home. As many people as possible must attend. This explains why there is usually no help when a girl makes a loud alarm as she’s being raped. People don’t want to antagonize social relations and sex is expected at the marriage functions. It goes without saying that LC officials usually grace these functions but are also so ingrained in the same social system and forget their legal mandate.

The good news is that with engagement, the Alur Paramount Chief has pronounced himself on this cultural practice in Nebbi. He has encouraged his subjects to hold 1 day-time functions and it is taking root. This authority doesn’t seem to extend to the Jonam in Pakwach though. The area is presided over by several clan chiefs who recently elected among themselves a Chairperson. This forum could be a starting point to move to a similar one day function. It is then that boys will stop bragging about their sex escapades with the question; “how many girls have you slept with?”

Guest blog by: David Mugambe Mpiima, Asst Lecturer, SWGS

Email: davidmpiima@gmail.com