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Keeping Girls in school in Uganda

Annet in beauty salon where she found work after receiving specialized training from Plan.
Annet in beauty salon where she found work after receiving specialized training from Plan.
November 18, 2012

Three years ago, after Irene Kamyuka finished her sixth year of primary school in Uganda, her father ran short of money. With four older siblings ahead of her in school, Kamyuka’s father told her she would have to drop out until his finances turned around.

Kamyuka was determined to continue. Eventually enough money was available and she was able to finish the last year of primary school. Then the money ran out for a second time before she could continue to secondary school.

Though this East African nation’s government-run schools are theoretically "free", the reality is that parents who cannot afford to pay for uniforms, books, and supplies cannot send their child to school. Ugandans who live in rural areas, like Kamyuka from central Uganda, run into consistent financial difficulties.

In Kamyuka’s case, the outcome is often an interrupted or cancelled education. As dropouts, these girls will say that they are stigmatized because people assume they have left school because of a sexual relationship. In reality, the choice to stay in school is usually not even one they are allowed to make because their parents see little incentive in ensuring that their daughters finish school.

“They look at the girl as a liability”, says Johnson Ntende, the director of Kamuli Progressive College, a secondary school near the center of town. “The role of a wife in a home is to cook for the children and to look after the man. That role does not require academic achievements.”

According to preliminary statistics from Uganda’s Ministry of Education for the 2012 school year, the number of girls who qualified to attend secondary school stood at 343,000, in contrast to 408,000 boys.

According to the World Bank, the literacy rate for young girls aged 15 to 24 in this landlocked east-central African nation of 35 million was 84 percent in 2010, compared to 90 percent of males in the same age group for that year. This is a trend that is played out around the world, with girls less likely to be enrolled in school and able to access medical care. These girls are also more likely to be deprived of food.

The result, according to World Bank research, is a less-productive and more impoverished society. In Kamyuka’s case, her parents wanted to send her to school, but they simply could not afford it. The 15-year-old is now in her first year at Kamuli Progressive College thanks to funding from Plan International. She started school in August of this year.

Plan International is paying her term fees, which work out to be about 20 dollars every three months. While the school is a public-private institution and receives some funding from the government under the universal primary education program, there are some extra fees attached for uniforms and books.

Gloria Titi, Plan International's program coordinator, has said that in addition to paying for 54 girls in the area to go to school, Plan International is also looking at ways to improve the environment in and around the school to mitigate a dropout rate that is still “too high”. Often, this has nothing to do with money.

Up to 54 percent of girls in Kamuli will drop out of school before finishing, according to Titi. At Kamuli Progressive College, there is a chart on the wall of the director’s office listing enrollment figures.

There are 133 girls enrolled in their fourth year; the number drops to 21 girls for the fifth.

The reasons are myriad: harassment from men on the long walk to school, a lack of private bathroom facilities, and no money to buy sanitary pads during menstruation. Kamyuka said that some of the boys at her school target girls for consensual or forced sexual encounters, which can then harm the girl’s reputation. And if she becomes pregnant, she’s forced out, while the father of the baby is able to continue.

“Girls start loving boys, which will lead them to drop out of school,” Kamyuka said. “Boys are just destroying our lives.”

Kamyuka and her peers say that without an education, early marriage is the only option left. That idea is pervasive in Ugandan society. It kept Claire Namakula in a two-year abusive relationship.

At 15, she moved in with a man who abused her. "He was abusing drugs, drinking alcohol, and smoking", she says. Soon she became pregnant. After two years, she took the unusual step of moving out on her own in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala.

Namakula, who is now 28, was denied the opportunity to go to school and took a catering class for under-educated women. When the class ended, she and the other women formed a catering company, which they named Allied Female Youth Initiative. She said the training showed her that she had other options besides being dependent on a boyfriend or husband.

Before the training, “I didn’t even have a bank account,” Namakula has said. “People would not respect me. Now, people even kneel and say ‘hello’ to me as a responsible person.”

Plan International also offers skills-training courses in hairdressing. These courses have offered hope and have created an extra source of income for women like Annet Nakabiito, who dropped out of school after her fifth year of primary school.

After attending hairdressing courses, she is now employed at a hair salon in Kampala.

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