Keeping girls in school: Ugandan start-up recognized

Nargis Shirazi, a young public health specialist in Uganda was working with the UN millennium villages project when she met a 13-year-old Agasha* in Isingiro, a southwestern district. Shirazi who had come to participate in the role model day asked Agasha what she needed in order to realize her dreams.

Agasha had been great netball player and had been going to school until two years before. The 13-year-old girl told Nargis that for her getting sanitary pads would mean getting her dream back. She went on to narrate a story of how she had been a great player at school.  During one of the competitions, Agasha was in her menses but she went ahead to play. In the middle of the game she had to go off the court.

In rural Uganda, girls have to improvise, use old cloth or underwear during their period. It was during that game that the cloth she was using dropped right on the court. She was embarrassed as other students cheered and laughed at her. Agasha stopped playing netball and didn’t go back to school for next 2 years.

“When she recounted this story to me and said getting sanitary pads meant she can be confident again and get her dream back, that was an inspiring moment for me, says Shirazi.

Shirazi that day phoned Dr. William Lubega, a colleague to ask what they could do.

In August last year, Shirazi together with Dr William Lubega and Amos Zikusooka, a consultant brought Woman to Woman Foundation into force.  WWF enables girls in rural areas to stay in school by ensuring they have access to reusable sanitary pads and panties.

“Part of our model is to involve the community in these re-useable sanitary pads project so we can create employment for women in the community at the same time as they play a role in keeping their girls in school,” said Dr. Lubega.

Nargis Shirazi
Nargis Shirazi

Woman to Woman Foundation (WWF) was announced among the ten most inspiring start-up enterprises working for the well-being of women and girls by Women Deliver, a global advocacy organization to mark International Women’s day last week.

More than 13,500 votes were cast online to select these winners. Each finalist will receive a scholarship to the Women Deliver 2013 conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (May 28-30, 2013), where they will compete in the first-ever Women Deliver Social Enterprise Challenge.

WWF also relies on volunteers to do their work.  They run 3 projects, which  rely on partnerships that the young professionals who co-found it have cultivated.

The Promise:

The sanitary pads and panties are distributed under what they call The Promise, a program aimed at addressing sexual and reproductive health issues and rights. Currently WWF is working with 200 girls in Isingiro district at Nyakamuri School.

“We called it the promise project because we believe that the way we can bring about change is to empower girls. We cannot do it only by giving them pads, we also back that up with education in sexual and reproductive health rights,” Shirazi. The have so far partnered with AfriPads to offer free sanitary pads and underwear to girls.

Dr. William Lubega
Dr. William Lubega

Any project to keep girls in schools in Uganda is very important, looking at the current school drop out statistics.

Over one million pupils who enrolled for Primary One under the Universal Primary Education (UPE) in 2006 did not reach Primary Seven indicating a 71% dropout rate.  In East Africa, Uganda has the lowest proportion of children staying in school up to P7, according to a 2010 report by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In Kenya, the completion rate is 84%, Tanzania 81% and Rwanda 74%.

When it comes to girls dropping out of school the rate is higher than that of boys. And what may appear as simple needs like sanitary pads can keep a Ugandan girl out of schools on average three weeks out of three months term.

Although the education ministry says the net enrollment for girls at primary level increased from 82.3% in 2000 to 97.2%, keeping these girls in school is a challenge mostly because of cultural attitudes towards girl child education, poverty and teen pregnancies.

WWF founders are moving to use social media to engage and also expand their reach as more young Ugandans are joining social media channels. Also through social media they have got partners. For instance a top fashion designer in Uganda learnt about the foundation through Facebook and offered to hold the Kampala Fashion for Compassion show due in May. Part of the proceeds will be for community benefit and delivering more sanitary pads to schools.

“We don’t just supply pads, we engage mothers to make sure they are helping girls make the right choices as far as sexual and reproductive health is concerned.”

Nargis was born and raised in Mombasa, Kenya and she’s a Ugandan of Iranian origin. She has a degree in community psychology and masters degree in public health.  Dr. Lubega is an mHealth specialist contractor with a keen interest in the intersection of Public HealthCare, Information Technology and Economics

WWF also uses bracelets with three colors to keep the message alive. Yellow represents ABC (abstinence, Be faithful, Condom use), a model that Uganda used to bring down HIV/AIDS rate. WWF bracelet has lime green, which signifies staying in school and Orange for a brighter future.

The sanitary pads project is not limited to schools. In past WFF also worked with Xfoundation to bring sanitary pads to women in prisons, another neglected group.

“In Uganda when one is convicted it is like losing your humanity, there are no good sanitary conditions in prisons and for women this is dire.” Said Lubega, “so we go to the prisons to distribute re-useable pads”

Other projects being run by WWF are Creative Arts Targeting Community Health where they are using plays and participatory photography to share messages on sexual and reproductive health. The arts project is supported by International Health Sciences University.

Later this year in June, WWF will have a play called The Twist at the National Theatre, which Shirazi wrote to put some comedy on reproductive health issues.

The founders of WWF so far see resources as their big constraint. They started with money out of their pockets but as young professional, they cannot sustain funding the activities by themselves.

“We are young people with no money, we are just young people with great ideas to help communities,” says Shirazi, “We need to invest in young peoples’ ideas because they have the zeal and the power to change not only themselves but also communities. An idea with out backup cannot easily take off.”

In the next one year WWF founders hope to expand to 8 districts and as a start-up enterprises there’s still so much room for expansion to keep girls in school.

5 thoughts on “Keeping girls in school: Ugandan start-up recognized

  1. What is really astonishing is the difference in completion rates. I would have expected Uganda to have been one of the better performers in East Africa. It is also interesting to speculate how many other simple solutions to problems exist.

  2. This is an inspiring story.Very good thing you are doing to help girls stay in school.Just check the the grammar of your article and everything will be very perfect.Keep up the good work though.

  3. Fortunately, I was in the same MPH class with Nargis and her passion for community work and proven experience in handling young girls/women health issues is undisputed! 🙂

    I think implementing partners in the public arena MUST feel sad, to see that young professionals are doing what they (the public partners) are supposed to do. I salute the young professionals redefining the history, the present and the future of their communities.

    Hats Off!

    Brian -African Union

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