Many young girls living in the urban slums of Kampala, Uganda, struggle with a lack of educational and economic opportunities. In a culture where a male’s education is prioritized, a disproportionate number of girls do not complete school, are often forced marry early, feel like they don’t matter, and lack the skills needed to contribute to their families, which lowers their self-esteem and self-confidence.
Monica Nyiraguhabwa was one of those young women struggling to complete her education until a chance encounter with Kimberly Wolf, a young American woman passionate about girls’ rights and leadership, changed everything. While their backgrounds and circumstances were different, they both related to the challenges that come with growing up as a girl in today’s world and the power of having someone believe in them.
Together, they dreamed up the idea of Girl Up Initiative Uganda (GUIU) after visiting Monica’s community and identifying the need to advance educational and economic opportunities for young women and adolescent girls in these slum areas. They named it “Girl Up” because they wanted the name of the organization to reflect their commitment to lifting girls out of a life of poverty and gender inequality. Just as boys are taught to “man up,” the two wanted girls to be taught to “girl up” and realize their power and strength as girls.
What started out as an idea with $100 seed money has grown into a movement in just eight short years. Each year, the number of girls and young women that GUIU helps increases as the organization grows. This year, Girl Up intends to directly help 15,000 girls and young women and equip them with the skills, knowledge, tools, and provide mentorship and support to develop their self-confidence and voice to thrive as leaders in their schools and communities.
“We aim to contribute to systematic change in the community by ensuring that girls are recognized as active agents of change,” Monica said. “By empowering girls, both individually and collectively, to challenge the patriarchal social order, they become spokespersons for girls’ rights and become drivers of systemic gendered change in the community.”
Girl Up has directly helped over 70,000 girls and young women through various programs since 2012 and encourages the girls and young women to share their learnings and acquired knowledge with others who do not benefit from the programs. The girls are also eager to use the leadership skills and confidence they have gained through the program to mentor other girls. Girl Up estimates that each girl will reach an additional five girls, creating positive ripple effects throughout their schools and communities.
Its mission is to create a gender equal world by equipping girls and young women with the confidence, mentorship, skills, and knowledge to reach their full potential. The organization currently has Coaches (facilitators) who not only train girls, but act as positive role models for at-risk girls. Programs include:
The Adolescent Girls Program
GUIU has run the Adolescent Girls Program (AGP) as its flagship program to advance the educational opportunities for adolescent girls aged 9-15 living in urban slum areas in Kampala since 2013. An in-school program, AGP focuses on building adolescent girls’ capacities for individual empowerment and social survival, especially in patriarchal environments that do not value and respect the rights of girls and women. It consists of a cluster of synergistic activities to ensure that girls receive the skills, knowledge, tools, mentorship, and support to develop their self-confidence and voice to thrive as leaders in their schools and communities.
The Big Sister Network
In 2016, GUIU launched The Big Sisters Network, as they recognized that graduates of the AGP needed continued support and opportunities to grow their leadership and influencing capacities. It now ensures that AGP alumni continue to access female- focused education and stay involved and engaged with GUIU and their fellow graduates. In 2019, GUIU realized one of its biggest organizational dreams – the Big Sister Camp – where 210 girls converged for a residential camp full of learning, laughing, and playing. It was a magical four days to honor and further develop the leadership potentials of our Big Sisters. In 2020, they plan to have another Big Sister Camp for 260 promising girl leaders.
Mazuri Designs Hub
Mazuri Designs Hub was first launched in 2015 in recognition of the limited economic opportunities for out-of-school young women in the communities GUIU works with. Uganda’s 70% youth unemployment rate leaves them financially dependent on men and struggling to support themselves and their families. Therefore, Girl Up launched a social enterprise to offer young women skills training that could provide them with a sustainable income. Today, the Mazuri Designs Hub training program offers a one-year vocational training course in fashion, design, and tailoring that is combined with entrepreneurial and personal skills training for young women, ages 16-35 years. The young women are trained by experienced tailors and given the opportunity to showcase their products at the fashion show graduation at the end of the course. The project advances economic opportunities for the young women and has had a positive impact on their incomes. In GUIU’s 2019 post-project survey, 67% young women reported that their average weekly income had increased after participating in the program, all due to selling products they sewed.
Ni-Yetu Youth Program
GUIU has partnered with Plan International Uganda since 2015 to implement the Ni-Yetu Youth Project in all five divisions of Kampala. The aim of the project is to empower young people, ages 13-24 years, with correct knowledge, attitude and skills for reducing gender-based violence and improving their sexual and reproductive health and rights outcomes. The Ni-Yetu Youth Project is a gender transformative project that looks at challenging negative social norms and practices that affect SRHR outcomes amongst young people. It uses youth innovative approaches such as street theatre performances, youth-friendly health camps, peer-to-peer education, music campaigns, and sports outreaches. While the project reaches out to both genders, it benefits young women specifically by changing attitudes towards gender inequality in the communities they live in. Even though girls and women constitute GUIU’s focus group, the organization understands that boys and men must also be engaged in the fight for gender equality given that they are the other half of the equation when it comes to advancing girls’ rights and ending gender-based violence.
As Girl Up’s programs have grown over the years, their staff has too. “We are proud of the growth of our young, female-led, Ugandan team. Girl Up now employs 20 full time Ugandan staff, 76% of which are female and 85% under the age of 30 years. Providing employment and volunteer opportunities to aspiring and dedicated young Ugandans is an essential part of our mission and the way we work,” Monica said. “These vibrant young people make up the GUIU Dream Team – we dream together, create ideas together, and make change happen together! Each team member brings their own unique skills, talents, and ideas to enable the organization to grow and transform more lives.”
“We have achieved many exciting milestones, and I have been blessed to work in a job I am extremely passionate about. My biggest highlight is seeing the growth and development of our girls as they become powerful and confident young women in my community. Many of them are now in university and secondary school, and stay in touch with me. I love to see how GUIU has impacted their lives in positive ways,” Monica said. “Because I work in the same community that has seen me grow up, they are now seeing me in this position as a woman and a leader. I love going into the community to engage with the adolescent girls and tell them my story to inspire them to re-write their stories so they can achieve their dreams.”
Monica and Kimberly have garnered some international attention for their efforts too and have appeared on NBC’s The Today Show with Michelle Obama in 2018 (see here) and were invited to meet Oprah Winfrey at her home last year. Monica has also had the opportunity to speak up for girls through the Obama Africa Fellowship, Cordes Fellowship, iLEAP Fellowship, and African Visionary Fellowship with the Segal Family Foundation.
People can help Girl Up Initiative Uganda by following and sharing updates through social media platforms (@girlupuganda on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) and by subscribing to their newsletter at www.girlupuganda.org. You can also support GUIU’s work to change the lives of young women and girls and donate to their cause at www.girlupuganda.org/donate.