Women and girls, especially in developing countries, lag behind men and boys, mostly due to limited education caused by poverty and the beliefs of some communities that educating girls is not important. This, combined with early marriages and high maternal mortality rates, means that such countries struggle to change the quality of lives of their people.
In order to turn around this trend, at the Millennium summit in 2000, world leaders under Millennium Development Goal 5, committed to promote gender equality and empower women by eradicating gender disparity in primary and secondary education. Uganda, being party to this commitment, had already started addressing this with the introduction of universal primary education in 1997 and universal secondary education in 2006. Unfortunately, despite this change, we still see communities that have not taken advantage of this.
Fourteen-year-old Susan (not her real name) always performed well in school and passed her primary school examinations. Unfortunately, her father had passed away years ago and her mother remarried and moved away with her new husband. Susan and her siblings were abandoned, left with their elderly grandmother, who could barely fend for herself. After passing the examinations, her uncles and aunts decided Susan should drop out of school and get married to a man they had selected for her. Seeing that they were determined to make this happen, Susan approached one of Africa Educational Trust’s (AET) school mothers in her community. She had heard that school mothers are women who advocate for girls’ education and could help individual girls get through their education. This meeting turned out to be a life-saving event for Susan.
The school mother got in touch with AET staff, who contacted a head teacher in one of the partner schools who accepted to take Susan in. Today Susan is a student at Iceme girls’ school, one of the partner schools of AET. She aspires to be a doctor and from the reports of the head teacher and her class teacher, she is on course to becoming one.
A gateway to all other rights
Susan’s situation is not uncommon in rural communities in Uganda, where most people are not aware that under Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, education is a human right. Education has the power to unlock the potential of individuals to address issues such as poverty and maternal mortality. This means education has to be taken seriously and no child should miss out on this gift as it opens the door to the enjoyment of other rights such; civic rights, right to housing, freedom of expression, right to health and to own property, among others.
Susan may have survived early marriage, but other girls her age may not be that lucky. The high rates of early marriage and teenage pregnancy greatly affect the rights of the girls to attain an education. Some communities claim a lack of resources prevents sending all children to school and use this as a reason for prioritizing boys. This does not only disadvantage the girl child but also affects her future family. A woman in her family, in the Ugandan context, assumes many roles, such as taking care of children while the husband is away, going through the child’s homework, nursing the sick and ensuring the general safety and wellbeing of the family. An educated woman can play this role with more knowledge and understanding to support her family.
Women rising in Uganda
Uganda has recently seen many great women assume important positions of responsibility; a testimony of the power of education. Dr. Specioza Wandera Kazibwe and Hon. Rebecca Alitwara Kadaga, the first female vice president in Sub- Saharan Africa and current speaker of Uganda’s parliament respectively, are good examples. I want to see our leaders from the grassroots to the national level enforce the law to address this deep-seated problem, especially in the rural areas. The government has taken initial steps by introducing universal primary education and universal secondary education, which has significantly subsidized the cost of education.
However, we still have the problem of parents not taking their children to school. With the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) there is an opportunity to further push for girls’ completion of primary and secondary school and the Africa Educational Trust is committed to ensuring all persons have access to quality education. Through the BRITE project, Africa Educational Trust is supporting at least 1,700 girls in Oyam and Otuke districts to access and remain in school. The project is working to improve enrolment and retention in schools, improving the quality of education through promoting school enterprises and ICT, as well as opening the minds of the students to the broad career opportunities after school through career guidance.