Monica Nyiraguhabwa stored her experiences of injustice as a young girl in the slums of Kampala, Uganda, to fuel her passion to empower girls to lead, to know they are important, help them find their voices, and use their many talents to “Girl Up” similar to how boys are taught to man up. Monica’s own desire for leadership was stalled by the fact that she was too poor to have shoes and all the family’s limited resources went to her younger brother—his educational needs, uniform, etc. Girls are not a priority in Ugandan culture and most do not finish school. It wasn’t until Monica went to a Catholic high school and met a teacher who convinced her of her self-worth that she began to shine. Her grades improved and two college degrees later, she met Kimberly Wolf, a young American girl, with a like-minded passion to help empower girls. Kimberly supplied $100 as seed money and the two young women co-founded Girl Up Initiative Uganda.
“I think this has to stop and it stops with me.”
In college Monica says that her education helped transform her ideas into reality. She began to understand the issues of patriarchy and gender bias. Combined with her unmet needs as a child, she describes it as an accumulated hunger to respond to the injustices she had endured. She went to work for a women’s rights group, which was where she met Kimberly. When Kimberly addressed the problem of the lack of money, Monica said that she didn’t need money. She said, “I was the capital. I knew I could speak.” Monica used the $100 to buy snacks for children, starting the momentum with one school, as a part time effort. Today, they’re in 20 schools, with over 2,000 students and doing this program for the whole year.”
It’s important to empower adolescent girls, Monica says, while they are still naïve and haven’t accepted the limitations that culture has placed on them. The program is also holistic, supporting girls with educational and economic needs. She explains that if girls don’t have sanitary supplies during their monthly period, they won’t go to school. Also, many of them are going hungry, so nourishment is also important for Girl Up to support. Finally, they teach them skills to use their creativity and help them support themselves. And they mentor them in the way Monica herself was mentored by her teacher to understand they are worthy and important and can become a change-agent in their own families and communities.
Women are the best investment in the future
Monica says that women give the best return on investment. She says that she really believes in women because when you pass the right information on to a woman, she will share it with her children. It’s in our character. We want to speak the truth and share that wisdom with other women. In fact, she is delighted about the new Big Sisters Camp for the alumni of the Adolescent Girls Program. Read more about it and other Girl Up programs here.
Nancy expressed a concern over the lack of women in world leadership, and how if women and men supported other women in leadership, anything would be possible. Monica agreed. She said, “I believe you a hundred percent. And I think if we are to fix leadership crisis in the world, then women need to take charge of the world.” Nancy replied, “Well Monica, I think it’s time for you and I to take charge. It’s time.”
Greatest Need Is Partnerships
While Monica mentions that with the current COVID-19 crisis, Girl Up is challenged to figure out how to operate amidst the pandemic. Schools are closed; dawn to dusk curfews are in place. But she anticipates this time will be short. The biggest challenge is keeping people fed, because like in the U.S., the people of Uganda are experiencing economic hardships. Watch this video for more about what is being done now.
The organization’s biggest need is partnerships. As the Girl Up Initiative grows, Monica feels the need to partner with different organizations who are doing similar work. She says that they haven’t created Girl Up alone. They have benefited from other organizations offering them advice, support, resources and introducing them to different networks. To continue to grow, Monica says that partnerships among people working toward similar goals is crucial.
Listen to this interview for more valuable information, more of Monica’s personal story and Dr. Nancy’s views on how much better off the world would be if we would understand that we’re all equally important. Check out Girl Up website for ways to support their work, and to learn more about how they are empowering girls to lead and keeping hope alive.