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27 July 2017

Uganda: Empowering girls

The discrimination of girls in Northern Uganda extends throughout all areas of life. Sexualised violence and unwanted pregnancies are major problems. Our partner organisation, Mentoring and Empowerment Programme for Young Women (MEMPROW), seeks to challenge this. Its objective is to empower girls and, through education, open up opportunities for them not only to lead an independent life, but also to bring about change in the social environment and to dismantle patriarchal structures.

It starts already with food. “At home, it is only my brothers that get meat,” 17-year-old Vicky says. The discrimination of girls in Northern Uganda extends throughout all areas of life. Because they have to help out so much at home, many girls have little time left for schoolwork. Sexualised violence and unwanted pregnancies are major problems. Girls receive very little protection against assaults – not even at school. The majority know very little about sexuality or reproductive health and most leave school when they become pregnant. The shame and stigma are too much to bear.

Vicky, who has a four-year-old son, explains: “The others in the class make a fool of us young mothers.” For many, this is the start of the cycle of sexualised violence, teenage motherhood and a lack of education. Our partner organisation, Mentoring and Empowerment Programme for Young Women (MEMPROW), seeks to challenge this. Its objective is to empower girls and, through education, open up opportunities for them not only to lead an independent life, but also to bring about change in the social environment and to dismantle patriarchal structures.

Last year, at the Erussi secondary school, the Ugandan women’s organisation supported a total of 64 schoolchildren aged between 14 and 25, who had experienced, or were threatened by, sexual violence. In special courses, MEMPROW trained them in entrepreneurial skills to help them become economically independent. They also focused on such issues as access to land and other resources as well as individualised career and future planning. In addition, 30 goats were acquired and two hectares of land provided for the young people to grow maize and beans.

To curb sexualised violence in the long term, the programme involves the entire school and whole community. At a range of events, MEMPROW seeks to sensitise teachers, parents and local authorities to the issue of sexualised violence and the specific needs of young mothers. It has also set up an office within the school, providing psychosocial counselling and documenting all cases of violence to ensure that assaults can be more effectively followed-up.

With MEMPROW’s support, Vicky has managed to return to school. This entailed a considerable amount of persuasion – both within her family and at school. She also succeeded in acquiring a piece of land, on which she now cultivates coffee. In a culture that traditionally does not allow women to possess land, this is a huge achievement. And it has given her self-confidence. She has words of advice for girls in a similar situation: “Don’t allow them to bully you. Go to school.”

Rwanda: breaking the silence

The youth forum initiated by the partner organisation, SEVOTA, in Rwanda also targets young people. Participants have one important thing in common: they are all children of the genocide of the mid-1990s, when more than 250,000 women were raped, wounded or mutilated. Many survivors gave birth to the children of their rapists. While these children are often excluded as “enemy offspring” in their communities, the mothers, themselves, often vacillate between affection and rejection, still caught up in their own traumatic experiences. Even, now, twenty years later, the trauma is having its impact on the next generation.

For the first two youth forums, invitations were sent out to children of women who had already had contact with SEVOTA. Over the course of a week, they shared their stories, cried together, and laughed, too. After the long years of silence, participants found these group exchanges liberating. “The forum allowed us to speak openly for the very first time, with no sense of shame,” says 21-year-old Olivia. SEVOTA also introduced them to methods to help them when they are feeling sad, angry, ashamed or are experiencing other troubling emotions. Many of them knew very little about the circumstances surrounding their birth. “I understand my mother better now, because I know what she had to go through,” Olivia says. Understanding helps both the mothers and the children to develop a better relationship with each other.

To enable the young people to continue their mutual support, SEVOTA has set up youth clubs in their home regions. Their function is not only to help them deal with problems, but also to provide positive community experiences.

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