Editor's Note: This article is written by Kimberly Wolf, interviewing Monica Nyiraguhabwa. Both are co-founders of Girl Up Initiative Uganda.
I’ll never forget when I first saw Monica at the Entebbe airport that warm day in September 2012 as we both waited to pick up our baggage. I was looking around at the diversity of people entering Uganda, with the feeling that this was exactly where I was supposed to be. Monica was standing there, confident in her blue jeans, and a bit intimidating. As I went through the gates and was welcomed by the staff of the women’s rights NGO that I would be working with, I realized that this young lady had been working with this NGO as a staff member for the past 3 years, and we would be sharing the NGO van back to Kampala.
Little did I know then that four months later, we would start Girl Up Initiative Uganda (GUIU) together, an organization that provides young women and girls with opportunities to succeed and thrive as leaders in their communities through a holistic education and economic empowerment program. And I had no idea that Monica would transform my life, both professionally and personally, especially through her perfect quote for an anxious-ridden American, “just relax”. Today, I sat down (over Skype) with my partner to reflect on our personal journeys that have shaped our accomplishments within GUIU and where we’re headed to next.
Girl Up Initiative Uganda co-founders from left, Kimberly Wolf, Saidi Alikwan, Monica Nyiraguhabwa
Hi Monica! I hope that everything is good with you. It is finally warm here in Oslo, almost like the Kampala weather.
That’s nice, dear. It is always warm here! Should we get started with the interview?
Yes. I am wondering: had you been thinking of this idea to bring your skills and knowledge to improve the lives of the young women and girls in your community for a long time? Or was it something that clicked for you when I started to talk about the huge need for young women in slum areas?
Since I was a young girl I loved to help those in need. Growing up in a less privileged family, I always felt that girls were treated as second-class citizens. I was a victim of this and always wished for a better world for girls. As I grew up, I acquired the skills and information that I now pass on to young girls so they can claim their voice and space in society, and most importantly take charge of their lives. I was the first one in my family to graduate from university (Makerere University), which was a huge deal. And as a young single mother, I can relate very easily to the challenges of young mothers in my community, who we work closely with in our sewing and savings program.
Therefore, working in my own slum community is a dream come true! Through Girl Up Initiative Uganda, I, together with the entire team, am giving girls hope and belief in themselves through our empowerment trainings.
Yes, those trainings have even empowered me, haha. I know some of the information you teach touches sensitive topics. How has your community received the work of Girl Up Initiative Uganda?
The community is very excited by the fact that Girl Up Initiative Uganda is situated in the community itself! Because it is the first organisation situated in the community, they feel the services have been brought closer to them and speak to their needs. We engage community members and young women in the planning of the programs and because of this the programs gain their respect and lead to long-term impact in the community. In the short-term, we can see the impact of our program as the girls share their stories of change. For example, one girl told me that, “because of Girl Up I no longer walk in the night and I have learnt to choose my friends wisely.”
That is a beautiful way to show how the program has impacted this girl’s life. Sometimes, we can forget that simple things, like choosing good friends, can have such a large impact on one’s life. There are many other challenges that young women and girls face. For instance, girls are pressured into/decide to have sex at an early age, which in many instances leads to dropping out of school. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the mean age at first sex for women is 17 years and mean total fertility rate is 6.2 children when the mean wanted fertility rate is 4.5 children. What do you think needs to be done to prevent early pregnancy and ensure that girls excel in school and reach their potential?
Young women need to be encouraged and given life skills that will enable them to survive in the different difficult environments. They need to know that they are the ones who ultimately control their bodies and decide when they want to become sexually active.
Parents and guardians need to support their girls by providing them with basic needs such as sanitary pads and fees, and of course with continuous encouragement. This will help support the retention of girls in school and help them reach their potential as leaders.
Monica and her girls at Girl Up Initiative Uganda
What has been the most inspiring and most challenging aspect of this work?
The most inspiring bit is seeing change in the eyes and lives of the girls. Teachers in the schools that we work with say that there is a positive difference between girls who are part of Girl Up and those who are not. Girl Up members participate effectively in class, they move with confidence in the school, and as girls they look out for each other.
The most challenging part is that because of the limited funding, we are unable to meet each girl’s personal needs. For instance, some girls given their background cannot afford buying sanitary pads. Also, many of them stay out of school when their guardians cannot afford school fees. I hope that with more funding we can support some girls with fees so that they can stay in school.
Yes, you touched on the largest difficulty of starting an NGO: fundraising. That daunting word! With a budget of just $20,000 USD in 2015, most of us are working as volunteers and we are always struggling to raise funds, what keeps you going?
My passion and love for the girl child keeps me going.
So true. I cherish the fun times that I have had with the girls in Kampala, especially teaching them “yoga yoga”.
Yoga yoga with Auntie Kim
I know that my involvement with Girl Up Initiative Uganda has had the extra effect of drastically changing my own life. We can only teach those things which we know inside, which has forced me to transform the ways I relate to my body, feelings, and ideas as a leader. Do you feel the same way? How has this leadership role changed your own personal life?
The leadership role at Girl Up Initiative Uganda has shaped my thinking and aspirations. I look forward to being remembered in my own country as one of the people who led a movement of girls who changed and transformed their community. I want to help all people understand that girls, when given the same opportunities can strive and become better leaders and transformers.
I look forward to that day too. Thanks for your time Monica and keep up the amazing work!
Kimberly Wolf is the Deputy Executive Director of GUIU and Monica Nyiraguhabwa is the Executive Director.