In a few months’ time, MEMPROW, an organistion that focuses on empowering and mentoring girls and young women will be celebrating five years. I want to share what we have learnt and also pause a question that I ask myself every wakeful day. Why is change so slow when it comes to honouring girls’ and women’s rights?
When I conceptualized MEMPROW, it was to address the obvious lack of confidence of girls and young women I came across in my work. I thought I knew the problem and that a few sessions of mentoring and building self esteem would fix the problem of girls’ poor attainment and retention within the education system. You need to understand the issue of girls’ attainment in order to appreciate MEMPROW’S passion for empowering girls. You have heard that Uganda's universal education policy has narrowed the gap at primary level, however , what you have not heard is that only one third of girls who enroll in primary education are still in school at the age of 18 compared to one half of boys. The impact of this inequality starts to become starkly visible in the last two years of primary schooling where some schools register a school drop out of up to 80%. By the time they reach secondary there are 20–35 percent more boys and more than 60 percent more boys in upper secondary. The second question then is, if it is poverty that is keeping a Ugandan child from school, why is it that it is selective, keeping mainly girls out of school?
With the above questions we set out to visit schools and confirm if building self esteem would improve girls’ performance and prolong their stay in school. We started listened to personal testimonials of girls’ in secondary schools and in institutions of learning. As we went from one school to another, we started picking consistent common messages: “you must talk to our parents, they no longer want to talk to us, if we have a problem we just keep quiet”; “ we have a problem with our mathematics/ physics teacher”, or “my biology teacher wants me to stay behind for extra lessons, I have refused and he says I will fail, I am thinking of dropping Biology”. The stories From higher institutions of learning, were not much different; young women recounted how “my marks got lost and the lecturer says I should meet him at seven in the evening, I refused ; you have to retake the examination and yet it is not your fault”; another one expressed her frustration in class, “ I stopped asking questions because the lecture just tells me to see him after class if I have not understood what he is saying”.
What did we learn from all this? That focusing on building girls’ confidence and self esteem is not even half a job done and that we had to stop focusing on the girls’ poor performance and retention as the girls’ problem alone. I had always recognised the power of patriarchy in subordinating women and legitimising inequality. Today I appreciate even more its pervasive and destructive nature when I talk to a young girl who is being defiled by a father and she does not want to report because of the fear of shame it will bring to her father; or when a young female student says she had to agree to go the teacher’s house because the teacher asked her to help with housework in his house. But when a girl who has gone through mentoring and is not able to recognise the agenda of a rapist when he promises to expand her breasts , until actual rape happens; then you begin to comprehend the enormity and the destructive nature of patriarchal stereotypes and beliefs.
Through our work we have come to appreciate the strength and resilience of the girls and young women we work with. They are engaged in battles almost every day of their lives; at home , on the way to and from school and at school. They are fighting an enemy whose nature and identity they have no clue about; but they have survived because they have mastered a type of social skills only experience teaches. A few months ago, we organized a workshop for 40 girls from ten primary schools in a very poor part of the country. A thirteen year old girl, sobbing her heart out, narrated to us how every day before she goes to school her grandfather, who is her guardian, tells her she should get married and stop wasting her food; we all cried. “I go home every day , even when he tells me not to go back”, she added , throwing all of us into roaring laughter. In the same training workshop, when the girls were asked to come out with a role play about some of their challenges, in this one play they demonstrated domestic violence targeted at mothers and daughters; sexual harassment from male teachers and fellow students; excessive domestic work combined with food deprivation and; the impacts of unwanted/unplanned pregnancies. What they could not explain is why all this happens to them; this is what our empowerment and mentoring does. At MEMPROW we believe that understanding your cause of oppression is the first step in self liberation.
Is it possible to make change under these circumstances? At MEMPROW, we have used girls voices in different ways, and we are beginning to be listened to by community members and elders as well as teachers. We are building partnerships and focusing on tracking impacts, going back to schools where we have made minor impacts as this gains us reentry. A school where we had carried out our empowerment programme was able to register two first grades for girls, the first in 25 years of existence. They wrote, to thank us and to share with us what to them was the most exciting news in a long time, and to give us an invitation to go back and empower more girls; in this school we have established the power and relevance of targeted empowerment and mentoring to girls. We have also established the value and need for continuous mentoring among the almost two thousand girls we have worked with who have now formed a movement of young women to form a stronger voice on girls’ full participation education. Together and with other partnerships, we will face the challenges routed in patriarchy, especially impunity and the culture of silence on sexual violence. The need to empower girls and create a learning environment, free of abuse and discrimination has never been greater.
Sooo, Back to our question, Why is change so slow when it comes to honouring girls’ and women’s rights? Are you making faster progress where you are?