By Evelyn Lirri
MOROTO, Uganda (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Jackie Lomilo's father did not believe in educating his daughters past primary school, not when he could marry them off for dowries that might make life easier in Uganda's Karamoja region - once synonymous with cattle rustling and clan violence.
Most girls from the Karamojong ethnic group, whose members are predominantly nomadic livestock farmers and cattle herders, are pressured by their parents to drop out of school and get married once they reach puberty.
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"Even if you're interested in school, you cannot continue when you don't have money to pay the tuition fees or buy books and uniform," said 24-year-old Lomilo, wearing a necklace, waistband and earrings made out of colored beads that are typical of her ethnic group.
Although primary and lower level secondary education is free across Uganda, enrolment and completion rates in the northeastern Karamoja region remain far lower than the rest of the east African country.
Of the more than 23,000 girls aged between six and 12 who were registered with Karamoja's Moroto district, less than a quarter were in school as of July 2015, according to data from the district's education office.
And only 13 percent of girls completed primary education.
"The rest were either at home being prepared for marriage, or had already been married off," said William Isura, Moroto District Education Officer.
Local officials blame widespread poverty in Karamoja for fuelling the high rate of forced or early marriage in the underdeveloped, remote region bordering Kenya and South Sudan.
In this closed, conservative society, it is the men who usually make the decisions. Yet few are educated beyond secondary school and see little benefit in encouraging their children to exceed what they have experienced themselves.
An added problem is the common belief that the more a girl is educated, the less her bride price is worth because learning is considered to be less attractive in a wife than the ability to carry water or cut down trees for firewood.
"Most parents here do not appreciate the long term benefits of giving education to their children, especially the girls," Isura told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Not only do girls struggle with their parents' resistance to schooling, but menstruation can cause many to give up on education altogether, he said.
"Some do not have access to sanitary pads, school books or uniform. At home they're forced to become breadwinners and serve as sources of labor as the men spend the whole day grazing cows," Isura said.
The problem has prompted the district to run campaigns at the start of every school term to encourage enrolment, especially of girls, in school, Isura said.
But results have been mixed, said Beatrice Nalem, head teacher at Kasimeri Primary School, who attributed a lack of progress on the nomadic lifestyle of the Karamojong.
"When the weather changes, the families also move to look for water and pasture for their animals," she said. "The next time they return, the girls are already pregnant and the boys have dropped out altogether."
Girls unable to return to formal education are offered vocational training courses in carpentry, baking, tailoring, animal husbandry and agriculture, local officials said.
"Karamoja lags behind in most development indicators," said Kul Chandra, coordinator of the Institute for International Cooperation and Development, promoting education in the region.
"The skills we give the youth is one way they can make a living for themselves without going to look for formal employment," Chandra said.
For Lomilo, a course in animal husbandry proved to be a lifeline.
After completing her training, the mother of one was hired to help Moroto District council with a mass vaccination exercise for dogs, goats and cows.
She earned 1.56 million shillings ($460) - enough to buy a piece of land and pay school fees for her sisters.
"I'm hoping for another opportunity to do this job again. I will use the money to start up my own business," Lomilo said.
($1 = 3,385.0000 Ugandan shillings)
(Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)