How To Empower High School Girls In Uganda & Book Their Education For Life

Deborah Nakiaozi was willing to do whatever it took to stay in school. When her mom told her that high school was a waste of time and the family couldn't afford it since her father left years before, she boldly told her mom she was going to school and they would just have to make it work. Now in her fourth year of high school at Pioneer in the Mityana District of central Uganda, Nakiaozi wants to work in music and dance when she graduates.

"My parents are very poor and couldn't afford [high] school," the 16-year-old, donning the school's bright orange uniform, tells Bustle via Skype. "When I sent for my exam, I thought that was the end of my life."

Opened in 2011, Pioneer High School was the first of its kind in this rural area just west of Kampala, Uganda's capital. Before, students from 15 primary schools had nowhere to continue their education, but Pioneer now has more than 350 students enrolled, 54 percent of which are girls — an anomaly in Uganda, where less than 20 percent of girls reach high school, according to UNICEF's 2015 State of the World's Children report. There are a number of factors that keep girls out of school, including a lack of nearby facilities, tuition fees, and pressure from their families to get married and have children at a young age.

(Deborah Nakiaozi, 16)

"The girls from the Namongo area rarely attend secondary school and when they do, they usually don't complete," says Nammigadde Lovincer, the Mityana District education officer, on the charity Promoting Equality in African Schools' (PEAS) website. "The distance to the nearest secondary school is too far. The route they travel is demoralizing and can be very dangerous. Parents are reluctant to put their girls through this."

PEAS, which is based in the U.K., builds schools throughout Uganda with the goal of achieving gender parity in enrollment. The schools, which teach the usual science, math, and English, are unique in that they become self-sufficient two years after opening, meaning they can continue to operate whether the overseas charity exists or not. Along with students' tuition and room and board fees for on-campus students, subsidies from the Ugandan government keep the schools running.

One of Pioneer's biggest lessons, though, covers gender equality and women's health. Girls and boys alike are encouraged to attend Girls Club, where everyone is taught about the history of women's roles in Ugandan society and the various levels of gender equality around the world.

Girls Club also works to eliminate barriers that hold Ugandan girls back from finishing school and starting a career, which involves making menstruation less of a monthly obstacle. PEAS Communications Manager Mike Niles tells Bustle that on average, Ugandan girls miss three days of school each month because of their periods, as they often skip class if they're bleeding into their clothes.

"I couldn't count myself days, so when I'm at school my menstruation would come when I don't know," Nakiaozi says. "Sometimes I would find myself very dirty — I couldn't find myself clean."

Girls Club taught Nakiaozi how to track her period, so she would know when to expect it. A pilot program also provides reusable sanitary pads — a life-changing gift for girls going through puberty with only rags (or nothing) to use while bleeding. That way, neither their dignity nor education are compromised because of normal bodily functions. And their education has expanded outside Pioneers walls. The students share their new reproductive knowledge with others in their village, empowering even more women and girls in the area.

But more needs to be done. Nakiaozi and four of her classmates explain to Bustle that because the female population at their school continues to grow, none of the girls are guaranteed pads in the future and newcomers must go without. The pilot program, which was temporary, has yet to be extended or replaced.

The students also have a problem with a lack of girls' bathrooms at the high school. Between 80 and 90 girls live in the on-campus dorms and share about 10 toilets, which is problematic any time, but especially when menstruating. "For us, if we are using the only one latrine when [we] are in dormitory and class, it is not good for our hygiene and sanitation at school," another Deborah — 15-year-old Deborah Komuhendo — tells Bustle. PEAS says they're working on expanding the bathrooms, but the construction of new dorms have taken priority to match the booming numbers.

Both Deborahs are extremely grateful for the opportunity to go to school and participate in Girls Club, which is teaching them how to navigate life as women and help empower others in their community. "I couldn't even believe that one day I would be joining Pioneer," Komuhendo says.

If you want to help support and expand Girls Club, which isn't in place in all 28 PEAS high schools in Uganda yet, you can donate here. You can also donate to PEAS' general fund, which goes toward establishing more schools in the region and ensuring the existing schools offer girls (and boys) a high-quality education.

Images: Courtesy of PEAS