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Learning from the experiences of a girls’ empowerment program participants in Uganda

Tue, April 16, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Bay (Level 1), Bayview B


While enrollment levels for primary school are improving, many young people in Uganda continue to lack opportunities to further their education and then enter the job market. Many are also unable to complete primary school: in 2014, approximately 57% of young people between the ages of 15 to 24 did not complete their primary education (EPDC, 2014). Young women are particularly vulnerable to leaving school early. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, “across all levels of education, more males than females completed specific levels of education” (UBOS, 2012). Young women who do go on to higher education often do not enroll in classes for business or other “skilled” sectors.

Existing research has highlighted the numerous barriers preventing young women from receiving quality education and further entering the labor market, such as: negative attitudes towards girls’ education among policy makers; poor response to the needs of young female students; child marriage and pregnancy; inadequate sanitation and hygiene facilities; lack of female teachers; sexual harassment and gender-based violence; and health concerns, particularly HIV and AIDS. Recent studies suggest that these barriers do not provide a full picture of young women’s educational experiences, in that there are “complex and multiple ways in which educational content, delivery and environment perpetuate and even generate gender inequities” in Uganda, thus demonstrating a need for more research that explores the successes and challenges of young women within existing educational programs from a new perspective (Jones, 2011).

This study provides a new insight into some of the complexities of young women’s educational and empowerment experiences by exploring one particular type of program: a girls’ empowerment program, developed and operated by a large international non-governmental organization. Through interviews and focus groups with the former participants, the study sought to understand how these programs may improve educational and career outcomes for girls, and ways in which they might be changed to better address the needs of young women in Uganda.

In recognition of women’s critical role in economic development, this girls’ empowerment program has been introduced in the following countries: Bangladesh, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The program in Uganda is the largest, and has been in operation since 2007. The program uses a “club” model. The girls’ clubs offer mentorship, health education, life skills training and microfinance. They also provide safe spaces for girls to share their concerns and experiences, as well as create peer networks. Furthermore, the program helps girls to acquire financial literacy and to lay foundation for starting their own businesses.

There have been quantitative evaluations of the program conducted before, which demonstrated the general success of the program in the Ugandan context. Over a two-year period, teen pregnancy rates in the villages with the program were 20 to 25% lower than those in villages without the program. Furthermore, as a result of health education, the usage of condoms rose with 67% of program participants always using a condom versus only 38% in the control sample. The survey also noted an increase in savings levels among girls. The previous evaluations provided valuable knowledge about the impact on the program participants’ lives; however, there is limited information about the program from the point of view of the young women themselves. Therefore, with this study, questions were asked around the young women’s experiences in the program, their views of themselves before and after the program, and their expectations going forward.

Our findings are based on the information drawn from the field research trips to Uganda that included on-site observations in Kampala and Iganga, focus groups and individual interviews with over forty former program participants. In our presentation we will share some findings of the study that might potentially be used by this and similar organizations in developing or improving girls’ empowerment projects. The program aims to empower girls and young women both economically and socially. The findings revealed that the majority of the respondents in the sample have started their own business after the completion of the program. The young women specifically emphasized the importance of not only resources that came in the form of micro loans and materials/machines but also the fact that this program had helped them to come up with business ideas and to believe that they were realizable. As for the social empowerment, most of the women mentioned that after the program completion they became more self-confident and capable of public speaking, as well as more hopeful about their future. The study participants shared feedback on the program training and suggested ways in which it could be improved in the future. They also spoke about the tension between wanting to pursue their education, and needing to use their financial resources to provide for themselves and their families. Their feedback provided new insight into the program that would not be possible to gain through quantitative measures, and points to the importance of qualitative information to inform quantitative program evaluations.

The findings from the study may be useful for national and international organizations developing or evaluating similar projects. This study also contributes to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals: SDG 4 (ensuring inclusive and equitable education), and SDG 5 (achieving gender equality, and girls and women empowerment) by providing insights and highlighting areas of success, as well as those that might require improvement, which if addressed, can help to make the program outcomes more sustainable into the future.


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