In Their Hands: Supporting adolescent girls and their communities in Uganda

Uganda has one of the youngest and most rapidly growing populations in the world – Uganda has a 3.7% population growth rate and 78% of Uganda’s population is under the age of 30.

But despite these changing demographics, there is a lack of resources and services for the unique challenges faced by youth. Challenges like early marriage, teenage pregnancy, and gender-based violence make it difficult for young people, especially girls and young women, to unlock their full potential.

As an International Youth Fellow in Uganda, Zahra Jadavji is working on programs that help empower adolescent girls, so that they can access the services and resources they need to make decisions about their bodies and their lives.

The main project Zahra is working on is called In Their Hands, a project funded by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF). This project aims to help reduce unwanted teenage pregnancies in Kampala by increasing access to sexual and reproductive health services and information.

“In Their Hands is a really interesting project,” said Zahra. “The design of the program is technology-based, and it has a community-based development arm as well.”

Through an app called Tiko, In Their Hands connects adolescent girls with health service providers at no cost. The Tiko app and platform were designed and implemented by Triggerise, one of AKF’s partner organizations in East Africa. When girls access these free services after enrolling on the app, they earn Tiko points, which can then be used at partner businesses, like local shops and salons, that are within walking distance from the clinics.

Photo credit: Aga Khan Foundation

“The community sensitization aspect of the program is so critical. It’s great to have services being offered and the platform running, but if there is limited demand for that service in the first place, the impact is not fully realized,” said Zahra.

The In Their Hands project works with volunteer mobilizers who go out into the community, share information, and encourage adolescent girls to access the services and enroll on the app – mobilizers also earn points for each person who enrolls.

There has been a noticeable impact of the project within the community. As In Their Hands reaches the end of its project cycle, Zahra and the team in Uganda are already thinking of ways to scale up and sustain this project.

One example Zahra is working on is an innovation fund, which supports safe space groups that were established as part of the In Their Hands project.

A girls’ group in Arua, Uganda. Photo credit: Joshua Mirondo / AKF Uganda

“These groups teach youth about life skills, communication skills, and things they’ll need and carry with them for the rest of their lives. The idea is that these groups benefit the wider community and other youth, so they can pass on the skills they’ve developed through our program,” she said.

With an academic background in kinesiology and social entrepreneurship, and experience with enterprise strategy and product management, Zahra is using the Fellowship to bring together her diverse skills and think about how she wants to shape her career. She originally planned on entering the medical field while she was studying at McGill University but is now thinking about working in the health and international development space.

“Through this Fellowship, I’m realizing that the pieces I’m interested in are empowering local actors and helping them focus on the strategies and programs that work for them,” she said. While my role is focused on adolescent health, it is not just a ‘health’ problem that needs to be addressed; it is linked to livelihoods, education, everything.”

Since 1989, over 500 young Canadians like Zahra have participated in AKFC’s International Youth Fellowship, a program that has launched diverse careers in government, non-profit, media, and finance. The application period typically runs from November to February annually.