This Global Citizen of America Is on a Mission to Empower Girls in Uganda
"Girls have the power to change the world."
Global Citizens of America is a new series that highlights Americans who dedicate their lives to helping people outside the borders of the US. At a time when some world leaders are encouraging people to look inward, Global Citizen knows that only if we look outward, beyond ourselves, can we make the world a better place.
Vivian Glyck found herself at the Bishop Asili hospital in Uganda in May 2006 — far from her home in San Diego, California, about to experience something that would ultimately change her life.
Glyck had come to Africa to make a difference for those suffering from the AIDS epidemic, but would end up affecting change in a different way: by helping thousands of girls avoid teen pregnancy and child marriage.
Glyck is the founder of “Just Like My Child,” an organization that empowers girls in Uganda by teaching them basic skills about women’s health, career paths and social skills so that they can break the social norms that limit them from reaching their full potential.
By educating and empowering girls, Just Like My Child hopes to help girls better understand their rights and capabilities to achieve more than they were raised to believe they could achieve.
Education can make a difference in a girls’ life: seven or more years of education means a girl marries 4 years later, has 2.2 fewer children and is three times less likely to contract HIV/AIDS, according to the Center for Global Development and the Global Campaign for Education.
Just Like My Child provides girls with added education through its “Girl Power Project,” a mentorship program that teaches girls lessons on peer pressure, communication, women’s health, sexual violence and career opportunities.
“I think the thing that’s ultimately most exciting is that we’re creating thousands of bright lights with these girls who then go on to be mentors themselves, Glyck said. “These girls are passing along the message that your body belongs to you.”
It’s not only exciting, but it’s working.
In communities where Just Like My Child has initiated the Girl Power Project, there have been zero teen pregnancies, zero child marriages and zero dropouts among roughly 1,500 girls in 13 communities.
How It All Started
Glyck first came to Africa partially as a result of personal trauma she suffered. After giving birth to her son Zach, she wanted to have a child, but experienced not one, but two miscarriages and was left to wander what she was supposed to do with her life.
After hearing about the growing AIDS epidemic and malnutrition crisis in Africa, she decided to take a leap of faith.
She packed her video camera and went to Senegal to help.
There, she met a woman working as a journalist in Uganda, who connected her to the Bishop Asili hospital.
At the small hospital in Uganda, Glyck met Sister Ernestine Akulu, the hospital’s administrator who showed Glyck around the community and worked with her at the hospital. She stayed with Sister Ernestine for a whole week.
“It was truly an immersive experience, and I got to see quite a bit of the country and the areas we’ve been working with,” Glyck told Global Citizen.
Glyck also saw something tragic.
One night during her stay with Sister Ernestine, Glyck heard a woman screaming throughout the night. The next morning, the nuns brought Sister Ernestine and Glyck a baby girl, Christina. The screams that they had heard throughout the night were Christina’s grandmother as she watched her daughter die in childbirth.
“The immediate needs were: how were we going to keep this baby alive?” Glyck recalled.
Later, Glyck realized the needs of baby Christina just scratched the surface of the girls’ and women’s needs in the community.
Sister Ernestine told Glyck that baby Christina’s life would be challenging and that growing up without a parent would lower Christina’s chances of gaining an education or reaching her full potential. And baby Christina was not alone — many of the girls in the community were vulnerable to becoming pregnant and contracting diseases, and ultimately perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
“I really wanted to figure out how I could make a difference,” Glyck said. “I didn’t ever anticipate starting a foundation.”
Once at home in San Diego, Glyck published the footage she had taken from her trip on YouTube. She found that people in her community were curious about what was happening in Africa and asked how they could help.
Glyck kept in touch with Sister Ernestine, and together they raised enough money to fund the needs of the hospital. By July of 2006, Glyck had filed an application to launch the Just Like My Child Foundation.
The Mentorship Program
But Glyck didn’t stop there: she wanted to make a lasting difference in the lives of girls like Christina, as well. Inspired by a memorable trip back to the Bishop Asili hospital, Glyck started the Girl Power Project, a mentorship and teaching program for girls in Uganda.
Glyck traveled back to the hospital at least once a year, and in an early trip to a local school, her eyes were opened once again to the lives of the girls in the community. A member of Glyck’s organization in charge of the Girl Power Project took a group of girls from the class away from the teachers and other students to sit outside the school. She explained to them what sexual assault was.
“She asked them, ‘How many of you have encountered this?’ And out of a group of about 19 girls, every single girl in the circle raised their hands,” Glyck said in a video on Just Like My Child's website.
“When I saw that, I knew for certain exactly how lonely those girls felt, how isolated they felt,” Glyck recalled in the video. “And I knew that we could have an impact on them.”
Glyck grew up in poverty in Spanish Harlem, in New York City, with her parents, who were both Holocaust survivors. Growing up, her father abused her mother, was physically violent with Glyck her brothers, and sexual abused Glyck. For years she had no idea how to deal with the abuse or talk about it, until eleventh grade, when she found a mentor who empowered her to stand up for herself.
“I was very, very suppressed, and he was a frightening figure to just obey. That was really the connection I saw when I understood what was going on with these girls,” Glyck told Global Citizen. “Gratefully, I was in a place where there was a legal system. When eventually I broke out of the fear of silence, there was a system to protect me.”
Glyck recognized the resources available to her were not necessarily there for girls in Uganda. To provide girls with those resources through Just Like My Child, she created a mentorship program, called the Girl Power Project, to empower girls to reach their potential and break the acceptance of such social norms.
“For them sexual abuse is the norm, and they don’t really feel like they have rights or a voice. When they start to understand that their bodies belong to them … you’re creating an independent woman who is not a prisoner of cultural norm,” Glyck said.
Glyck’s goal is to reach 1 million girls by starting the Girl Power Project in 100 communities in Uganda and neighboring countries.
Through the Girl Power Project, community members and leaders “break the culture of silence” by teaching girls “simple skills in girls’ language” and inspiring them to be confident, to speak out, and to seek better opportunities. Some of the lessons include teaching girls sexual and reproductive health, how to avoid sexual assault, the importance of good communication, career goals and good vs. bad peer pressure.
“Some of the biggest issues plaguing girls in our world is their beliefs that they’ve been cultured to think that they’re not good enough, that they need to suppress their power, that they are not worthy,” said Glyck. “We need to really question the beliefs that hold us back from reaching our potential.”
Having overcome her own barriers, Glyck’s biggest challenge today is a lack of resources, which limits Just Like My Child from expanding into more communities.
Despite the success her organization has seen in its 11 years, Glyck knows they could be moving much faster with more resources, recognition and donations. Until then, she and her organization continue to empower girls living in the Bishop Asili hospital and beyond.
“Girls have the power to change the world,” Glyck said.