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Scholarships, mentors help Ugandan girls get a better education

Global Press Institute - Wed, 16 Jan 2013 15:54 GMT
Author: Global Press Institute
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Global Press Institute By Lillian Tindyebwa KAMPALA, UGANDA – Dr. Violet Okaba, 31, a pediatrician at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, says she almost had to drop out of school when she was a teenager. Her father lost his job when she was 16, and her mother’s salary as a primary school teacher was insufficient to support the family’s seven children. “I knew my parents might not be able to pay my fees,” Okaba says. “I decided to go and explain my plight to the headmistress.” Okaba says it was hard for her to share her family's financial dilemma with the headmistress of her prestigious Catholic school, where most students’ parents could afford their tuition. But the headmistress agreed to let her continue while her parents came up with the money. “Luckily, towards the end of the term, my parents were able to pay the fees,” says Okaba, smiling confidently in her office on the hospital’s pediatric ward. But when faced with fees for the second term, Okaba decided to apply for financial support from an organization she had heard about that helped young women to stay in school: Forum for African Women Educationalists. The pan-African nongovernmental organization works to improve education access for girls. “I was surprised and excited a few days later when they arrived with the press,” she says. “I was not used to receiving visitors, and this was a great day for me.” Okaba says she was one of the first recipients of a scholarship from the organization, so the press was invited to cover the ceremony at her school. With her fees worries over, Okaba was able to concentrate on her studies. She earned a government sponsorship to study medicine and surgery at Makerere University in Kampala. She now works as a pediatrician at Mulago Hospital, Uganda’s main referral hospital. Government officials and education advocates say that despite recent strides, girls still face obstacles to education, ranging from poverty levels to cultural practices. The Forum for African Women Educationalists supplements government schemes in order to help girls and young women to afford secondary school and university fees. Former program beneficiaries also become mentors to girls around the country, as advocates recognize that education for girls extends beyond school enrollment. School enrollment at all levels increased for both males and females in Uganda from 2001 to 2009, according to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2012. Girls have mostly achieved parity with boys in terms of enrollment, although girls still lag behind boys in secondary school by about 5 percent. In Uganda, inequality in school attendance among children ages 12 to 15 is low, according to 2009-2010 data in the World Bank report. While gender accounts for about 6 percent of this inequality, wealth accounts for about 80 percent. Mubarak Mabuya, the principal gender officer at the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development in Kampala, says the government has implemented various strategies to improve education for girls. For example, all girls can attend public primary school for free through the Universal Primary Education Program, Mabuya says. Those who meet grade requirements can go on to secondary school for free through the Universal Secondary Education Program. But fewer girls continue to secondary school after completing primary school, Mabuya says. Despite the major strides made in ensuring that girls access education, there are still more boys than girls studying at the primary and secondary levels. He attributes this to parents’ preference of educating boys, poverty, forced early marriages for girls and teenage pregnancies. Families’ preferences for educating boys and inadequate sanitation facilities are factors, says Christine Karungi Rwankote, the program officer of the Uganda chapter of African Forum for Women Educationalists. The universal secondary education scheme also doesn’t extend to all schools, she says. In order to access it, a student has to be willing to attend a day school. But in Uganda, parents and students prefer boarding schools for secondary education, especially for girls, to avoid male sexual predators while commuting to and from school. Early pregnancies contribute to dropout rates for girls, and daily commuting increases the risks of this, she says. The Forum for African Women Educationalists began in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1993. The organization was the brainchild of five African female ministers of education from Zimbabwe, Ghana, Gabon, Seychelles and Burkina Faso intent on improving girls’ access to education in Africa.    “At the time it was launched in Uganda in February 1997,” Rwankote says of the forum, “there was a large number of girls not attending school due to cultural issues, lack of school fees, loss of parents, HIV and the like.” Since its inception, the Uganda chapter has supported more than 6,000 girls through secondary and higher education, Rwankote says. Jane Olowo, 25, a Forum for African Women Educationalists’ beneficiary, recently graduated from Kyambogo University in Kampala, where she studied economics and statistics. “I had dropped out of secondary school due to lack of school fees,” Olowo says. “My parents are peasant farmers and had completely failed to pay for my fees.” Olowo says she remembered a team from Forum for African Women Educationalists that had spoken at her school about their work to educate girls. So in 2003, she sought out the forum’s offices and explained that her family couldn’t afford to pay her tuition. Olowo says the national coordinator of the organization wrote to her school, pledging the organization’s commitment to pay her fees. “I was able to complete my A levels,” Olowo says, “after which I enrolled at Makerere University Business School.” But Olowo says that her funding from the forum was only at the secondary level. So she couldn’t afford the fees for university. “I soon dropped out again,” she says. After a year at home, she contacted the forum for help. At the time, it was still soliciting for funds for its higher education program. She says the new coordinator asked her to reapply for a scholarship and to another university. She gained acceptance to Kyambogo University and became one of the first beneficiaries of the organization’s higher education program. Rwankote says that the forum initially began with providing financial assistance for secondary school because the government offered sponsorship in public universities and tertiary institutions. But then the government introduced the quota system, which awards financial support to only about eight students from each region of Uganda per year, Rwankote says. “The university quota system was established in 2005 to help a few bright students who could not access university education,” Rwankote says. “It is also intended to give opportunity to students from those districts that fail to send students on government sponsorship to universities to do so.” Rwankote says the Forum for African Women Educationalists stepped in to provide support for more students pursuing higher education. “If there was no chance for the girls to proceed to university, then the work done at secondary level would be undermined,” Rwankote says. In addition to providing fees, the organization also donates educational materials to schools. Science kits and solar lamps enable the girls to study as much as they need to, she says. The Forum also offers mentorship for its beneficiaries, Rwankote says. Female role models visit secondary schools around the country to speak to the girls about issues ranging from life skills to sexual health. Okaba is one of the mentors who visit schools. “I now mentor girls, and they see me as a role model,” she says. “I tell them that I am now doing my master’s degree in pediatrics, and I see their eyes light up.” She does a lot of mentoring in her home district of Nebbi in the West Nile region. “There are still are lot cultural hindrances affecting girls,” she says. One is the cultural belief that when girls marry, they belong to the husband’s family and will work to support them, she says. “The attitude of parents is that the girls do not need to know a lot because they will only go away to enrich others,” she says. “So many of them leave school only after primary school.” The dropout rate remains high for girls in her district, she says.  “If I take that as an example, then girls need a lot of attention if they are to rise up from their marginalized position,” she says. Olowo also now volunteers at the Forum for African Women Educationalists’ offices in Kampala. “It is my way of giving back,” Olowo says. “I participate in mentoring and encouraging other FAWE beneficiaries.” Mabuya says mentoring is among girls’ educational needs. “The girl child needs safety and security from sexual exploitation and abuse, adequate and suitable sanitation, non-gender-stereotyped curriculum and mentoring,” he says. His ministry also promotes awareness around the country about gender and education. “My line ministry carries out community mobilization and sensitization about gender issues affecting girls’ education,” he says. “We also support the Ministry of Education to mainstream gender in their policies and programs.” Meanwhile, the Forum for African Women Educationalists and its beneficiaries continue their work. “I know that there are many girls out there with a lot of potential who need my help,” Okaba says. She says she already sees the importance of the forum’s dedication to girls’ education each time she treats a patient. “When I treat a critically ill child and discharge him or her in good health, when I look at the smile on the child’s face and the joy and appreciation of the parent, I marvel at the multiplier effect of the FAWEU seed,” Okaba says as she picks up her stethoscope to do her rounds. She encourages the community to invest in education for girls. “It all begins within the girl child and the community she grows up in,” Okaba says. “I believe and I know that girls can make it.” Read the original post here

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