“Girls are like birds”: How girls are reaching new heights in East Africa

There are four tall trophies on Yadah Mouzamin’s desk at Nyai Primary School. They are a dull gold and have masking tape labels, the one I can see reading “U14 Boys 2016 Champions.” I wonder what sport, and what the other three say, and whether any were awarded to girls. But my colleague Aminah Kaherebu politely pushes them aside, because they are blocking our view of Mr. Mouzamin, the school’s head teacher.

We are meeting with Mr. Mouzamin to learn more about Nyai Primary School’s involvement in a program to improve pre-primary and primary education for children in East Africa, supported by Aga Khan Foundation and Global Affairs Canada. It is the eve of International Day of the Girl, and we want to understand how this program helps students, teachers, and communities overcome the barriers to girls’ education.

Nyai Primary School is in northern Uganda’s Koboko district, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. The school is growing, accommodating 475 boys and 428 girls. Mr. Mouzamin is keeping a close eye on enrollment numbers because he wants to know if children, especially girls, are returning to primary school each year.

In the past, Nyai community members have had a negative attitude towards girls’ education. Some felt educating girls was a waste of money because, Mr. Mouzamin explains, “girls are like birds.” They fly away from the family home when they marry. Primary school itself is free, but books, school supplies, and uniforms represent costs that families cannot or choose not to pay. When a girl marries and leaves home – sometimes as young as age 12 or 13, due to the problem of child marriage in this district – some families felt there was no return on the investment.

Secondary school education is even less attainable, because it has a fee. Mr. Mouzamin describes one bright female pupil stuck in primary school. She has passed her school leaving exam, twice in fact. But she has returned to the final grade for a third time, because her family cannot afford to send her to secondary school.

Another barrier to girls staying in school is, according to Mr. Mouzamin, lack of self-confidence. One contributing factor for adolescent primary school girls is menstruation. Girls anxious about how to manage their periods at school may drop out or miss classes, fall behind, and lose confidence in their abilities. Mr. Mouzamin also finds that boys tease girls about their periods, which also may impact their self-confidence and desire to stay in school.

But Mr. Mouzamin says that Aga Khan Foundation’s program is “rubbing off” negative attitudes around girls’ education and helping to make Nyai Primary School a girl-friendly learning environment. To show me how, he introduces me to Nyai’s school management committee, responsible for school planning and priority-setting, and the parent teacher association, responsible for implementation.

The sun is a bright coin on a blue sky, so we arrange benches in a large circle outside under the shade of a tree. Pinned to its trunk is a placard telling students “You are too young for sex” – messages like these are common in Uganda’s schoolyards.

Under this education program, Aga Khan Foundation Uganda trained three local organizations to pass along skills and knowledge on gender equality to school management committees and parent teacher associations. An example of its success is the membership of these groups themselves. If I had visited prior to this program, I would have seen all-male committees. Instead, I count seven women and nine men. Furthermore, the women are as quick to answer my questions as the men. One woman explains to me something she learned from the training. By being taught the difference between gender, socially defined, and sex, biologically determined, she has come to see that gender roles can be redefined, notably “girls can do anything boys can.” These gender mainstreaming efforts have cultivated a positive attitude towards girls’ education.

The group members are proud to speak of their gender-responsive School Development Plan, which was formulated in collaboration with the head teacher and school community. It includes a plan for boys and girls to work together to cultivate flowers and a garden in the schoolyard. School management hopes that they will set aside the teasing along gender lines, and respect each other’s contributions to a common project. Another plan is to construct a bathing centre for girls, so that they feel comfortable going to school while they have their periods. The plan also promises a confidential space where girls can meet with the female teachers to discuss their challenges and get the support they need to complete primary school. Because girls themselves are best placed to identify barriers to their education, they need to be provided with the supports to overcome them.

Thus far I am an observer in this community… but then one male committee member yanks me into the action. He exclaims excitedly, “Women sit in front of men, like you are sitting here!” referring to me, and to my Aga Khan Foundation colleagues from Uganda, Aminah Kaherebu and Agnes Badaru. To him, we are a representation of women’s rightful place, equal to men. I am humbled to be included, especially among my colleagues who are dedicated to supporting communities like Nyai. And I am inspired by the head teacher and community members themselves, who are working so hard for girls’ education.

Sitting beneath the shade of the tree, it’s clear to me: With the right support, girls are still birds – but they are not limited to flying to their husbands’ homes. As they chart their future course, the sky’s the limit.

Hilary Clauson is a program officer at Aga Khan Foundation Canada.

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