Before I joined the Global Poverty Project team in 2011, I spent time on three continents teaching in primary schools and even a University. Increasing access to education and - most importantly - quality education has always been close to my heart.

Now that I lead United States Policy & Advocacy for the Global Poverty Project, ensuring that kids can go to school is a core part of my job. I couldn’t have been more excited to see First Lady Michelle Obama attend the Global Citizen Festival to speak about the Let Girls Learn Initiative and announce her #62MillionGirls campaign which aims to build awareness of the 62 million adolescent girls currently out of school.

Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about those 62 million girls.

I’ve spent the past week in Uganda preparing to take a group of members of congress to East Africa in May. On Friday, I was thrilled to join the Peace Corps to visit Child Care and Youth Empowerment Foundation (CCAYEF). The partnership between Peace Corps and CCAYEF is a fantastic example of Let Girls Learn in action.

CCAYEF is a small community-based organization that works with teenage mothers. The purpose of the organization is to improve the wellbeing of children and youth through education, counseling, socio-economic interventions, nutrition, and health care. Over 400 women from the Central Region of Uganda have been supported by programs at CCAYEF.

When young girls visit a community health center and discover that they are pregnant, health workers introduce them to the CCAYEF team and encourage them to register for the program. The girls, all of whom are out of school, are part of the CCAYEF community for six months while they learn critical life skills and prepare to either return to school or start a vocation. Programs like CCAYEF are so important in a country like Uganda where 38% of women become pregnant before they turn 18 years old and often do not have access to quality healthcare.

Here is the class schedule at CCAYEF on the day that I visited:

I sat through the goal setting class and was very grateful when the instructor offered me translations of what was happening in the class! The instructor posed a series of questions to the girls in the group. The questions included things like:

  • What sex do you want your baby to be?
  • What will do you do if your baby is the opposite sex?
  • What are your plans for delivery?
  • Do you have clothes for your baby to wear?
  • What religion will your baby be?

It was interesting to see the girls think over these questions. One girl stepped up and delivered eloquent and thoughtful responses to each question. The next girl, who was probably eight months pregnant, said that she had not yet thought about how or where her baby would be born.

The questions that were posed to the group were selected very deliberately. The instructor explained afterward that most girls in Uganda hope to give birth to a boy. She purposefully asks what the mothers will do if they give birth to a girl so that, if anyone seems likely to reject their baby, she can follow up afterward with one-on-one counseling. So smart.

The sense of sisterhood at CCAYEF was deeply moving. Girls helped take care of each other’s babies, shared pens and notebooks, and played together during breaks. “Community” permeated the small building.

While girls are part of the program, they have the opportunity to learn vocational skills that will help them support their new baby. For instance, the girls learn about menstrual hygiene and make reusable menstrual pads (RUMPS) that are sold throughout the community. RUMPS are made out of fabric and can be buttoned into panties. After a few hours, girls can switch out the fabric in their RUMP so that it can be washed in cold water and dried in the sun to kill bacteria.

Many girls in poor communities in Uganda use discarded and dirty fabric pieces as pads during their periods. I can’t even begin to fathom the kinds of infections these girls are exposed to. Other girls elect to stay home and free flow which means that they aren’t able to go to school. RUMPS may seem like a new age strategy for saving the earth while girls have their periods (does it sound a bit like THINX or Diva Cup?,) but for girls living in extreme poverty, a RUMP can often mean the difference between finishing secondary school or being forced to drop out.

I left CCAYEF feeling deeply moved by the stories of the girls that I met. Each of these girls represents one of the 62 million adolescent girls that are not in school. It is not fair that the circumstances that these girls were born into prevent them from accessing their full potential. But, we can do something about it.

You can go to TAKE ACTION NOW to call on world leaders to ensure girls everywhere get a full education. 

All photos taken with permission.


Demand Equity

Let Girls Learn in action

By Judith Rowland