Uganda, Women

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.

Justice, Uganda, Women

#I6Days: No justice as Uganda female journalist commits suicide after gangrape

It is that time of the year when we dedicate 16 days to remind the world of the endless need to eliminate violence against women.
November 25 is the International Day for the elimination of violence against women. In Uganda various organisations have done a good job using different media to pass the message that ought to be the everyday message to the population.

Tweetups, SMS campaigns, radio talkshows are all on to get Ugandans to understand that violence against a woman is violence against humanity too! That you can judge a society by the way it treats its women.

A week before November 25th, I read a thread on Facebook group that I am part of. It was about a female journalist from Bukedde who had died during childbirth.

We didn’t discuss much. It was just condolence messages although I felt this was time for us to reflect how close issues we cover are to our own lives. In Uganda everyday 16 mothers die due to childbirth. This is due to complications that could be prevented. In many ways maternal health is a social justice issue.

Just as this news was sinking in, another disturbing post came up. A female journalist had committed suicide. Moreen Ndagire, whom I didn’t know personally, was a Sub-editor at a Red Pepper, a leading tabloid in Uganda. At the age of 24, she had achieved quite a lot that not many youth can do in this country with a high unemployment rate.

Moreen Ndagire at her graduation in last year. Photo from Observer.

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Justice, Uganda, Women

Uganda women protest topless against Police public groping of female politician

On Friday, Ugandans witnessed another episode of police brutality. It wasn’t just the brutality we are used to seeing.  In this video ran by NTVUganda  a police officer was, publicly before the cameras, groping an opposition politician Ingrid Turinawe.

Ingrid has been at the forefront of various pressure groups in Uganda for the last 5 years. She was one of the leaders of the Activists for Change (A4C), a pressure group that led the famous Walk to Work protests that took place in many parts of Uganda for the greater part of 2011 as the Arab spring was going on.

The group has been banned because in our country where we still use very colonial laws to the advantage of a dictatorial regime, the attorney general has powers to declare a group illegal even without evidence of  the need to ban them. This law threatens even a blogger or writers who mention A4C as government could claim that they are  promoting an illegal group  with intention to ‘incite violence’. Already two journalists have been summoned by the police over an interview had with the head of the group. Human rights groups have warned on the dangers of the government-increased crackdown on freedom of speech, expression and assembly in Uganda.

Once the group A4C was banned, some of its leaders rebranded it into For God and my Country (4GC), taking after the country motto. It was after the launch of the new group that Uganda police brutality came back to our living rooms.

This time a male police offer publically groping Ingrid as another pulls her leg out of the car. The police officer didn’t grope her once, he did it repeatedly and in the video we hear Ingrid asking why the police officer was doing that. One other police officer warns his colleague but does nothing to stop this.

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What would you do?

“What would you do if instead of me from the moment you were born, every day they told you that you are less than another person, that you deserve less, that you don’t know enough to talk, that you have half the brains of another human? What would you do if you had to watch what you say, wear, do every moment of your life out of fear that someone might call you a name and the whole world might see you as “bad” so you could never be comfortable in who you are? What would you do if you were banned from going to school or harassed brutally on the way to school every day?  You would not be as strong as me. You would give up. But I won’t give up. I will keep fighting no matter what the society hands me.” -Meetra Alikozay, a member of Young Women for Change, a rights based group in Kabul run by young Afghan women.

Through their work i have learnt about issues affecting women in Afghanistan. I hope to one day watch This is my City too.

Follow them on Facebook.

Uganda, Women

Support the campaign to end child marriages in Uganda

Late last year i was part of a team from Isis-WICCE that was looking at the situation of child marriages in Kasese district and its impact on development. Below is a video i worked on and will be used in campaigns. Please spread the work.

More on the situation please read this article i wrote in the Daily Monitor.



Uganda, Women

When a woman bleeds a nation bleeds; tackling maternal deaths in the Rwenzori ranges

Mitandi is one of the areas that in our government policy we always call hard to reach areas. It took us wrong turns before we got our way around to the Mitandi health center in Mitandi sub-county Kabarole off Fort Portal – Kasese road.

I was with the US Mission in Uganda on a visit to US government-supported projects on maternal health and family planning. This trip was organized for Lois Quam, the Executive Director of President Obama’s Global Health Initiative (GHI). The visit to Mitandi was one to find out how the projects are fairing and the progress of Uganda government efforts to reduce maternal deaths by 50 percent in four western Uganda districts by end of 2012.

Uganda has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world at 435 per 100,000 live births. Mitandi is one of the difficult places to reach in Uganda where health services and indicators are always way below the national average. We found our way up the mountains to where the health centre sits atop a hill next to secondary school in the Rwenzori ranges.

A view of the Rwenzori ranges from Mitandi health center

Mitandi is a not-for-profit health center III run by the Seventh Adventist Church. The Health Center serves an area of about 40,000 people and it is the major health facility in the whole sub county. The nearest bigger health center is Kibiito health center IV about 20 km away.

Before 2010, Mitandi delivered less than five mothers per month; two years down the road the center delivers more than 20. This magic increase in number of women delivering at a health center that is even still understaffed is connected to a voucher system which has been getting funds from the US government.

Through Maries Stopes, implementers of this voucher project went through the villages carrying what they called ‘poverty grading’, looking out for the poorest of the poorest. A voucher would be sold to pregnant mother at 3000 shillings (less than 2 USD) and this entitled her to four antenatal checkups, free delivery and transportation in case of complications to a large health facility.
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Africa, Conflict, Women

Two historic stories of Africa in 2011

As the year 2011 closed, December 7 marked a historic day in international justice. The first former head of state Luarent Gbagbo appeared before the International Criminal Criminal for crimes allegedly committed during the Dec 2010-April 2011 post election violence in his country Cote d’ivoire. Gbagbo had take over and retain power by force and trickery. Over 3000 people died in Cote d’Iviore.

He faces four charges of crimes against humanity, including murder and rape. Throughout the conflict I had kept in close touch with friends in the country and their distress was beyond what I could imagine. Everyday Africa was treated to the drama of two people claiming to have won an election. Many thought Ivory Coast could head in the direction of Kenya and Zimbabwe, where compromise had to be reached because Africa’s old men didn’t wish to leave.

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