The Girl Up Initiative Uganda Teaches Young Girls to Dream Big
Born and raised in the beautiful but sheltered beach town of Santa Barbara, Kimberly Wolf, was not exposed to any information or knowledge about Africa. Upon travelling to Ghana for the first time at age fifteen, however, her life changed forever - her curiosity and eagerness to learn more about Africa was ignited. She wanted to learn why Africa was such an amazing yet misunderstood continent; why the mainstream media portrayed Africa as a place of sadness, hunger and poverty when there was so much beauty, colour and love.
Kimberly’s travels ended up inspiring her educational path. During her time at the University of California in Berkley, she studied international development and became the co-president of STAND – a student-led movement to end mass atrocities and genocide, which also focused on the divestment campaigns to end the Darfur genocide. She also studied abroad in Cape Town, which led her to backpack through Mozambique, South Africa, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali.
“Through my conversations and observations, I started to see a real dichotomy in the way that women were treated and respected. On one hand, I met some of the most resilient, strong, and tough women in the world, while at the same time they continued to be treated like second-class citizens in the home, school, and community environments. I also noticed that women bore the brunt of poverty while taking care of five or six children. It became clear that without access to correct sexual and reproductive information and access to contraceptives, girls would follow the same cycle of poverty and never have the opportunities for a different future,” Kimberly tells Fashionomics Africa.
Graduating at the worst possible time – just after the 2009 financial downturn – Kimberly struggled to find work at first, but soon landed her dream job working on the program team for the sub-Saharan region of the Global Fund for Women, aged twenty-two. “The experience of working with grantee partners shaped my belief in the power of community-based organizations to lead real change in the communities. It also showed me that there are thousands of organizations that, if given the financial resources and capacity building, could transform the world.
After two years of working there, I had an awakening moment while hiking in Joshua Tree. I knew that I had to leave San Francisco to go to Uganda and spend more time working with local organizations on the ground to really understand what it means to do community work in Africa. I began to have a vision of partnering with a young woman in an African country to start an organization for young women, run by young women, focusing on sexual reproductive health, rights and gender awareness. I knew that for an organization such as this to be effective and sustainable, the programming would need to come from young women in the community.”
This vision came true when Kimberly met Monica Nyiraguhabwa, when they both worked for a women’s rights organization in Uganda. “"When I returned from visiting a slum community in Kampala one day, Monica approached me to see how it had been for me. I told her that I was appalled by what I saw, the dangerous environment that young girls were living in. I saw girls wearing torn up clothing and wandering around looking for food, rather than attending school. Older girls were dressed up and earning money as sex workers.
After that, Monica took me to visit the slum community she grew up in. We met with the Local Councilman and the Women’s Officer who explained the situation and the urgent need to support girls and young women. Then, we visited with struggling young mothers between the ages of 16-18 years to discuss how an organization could best support them with their needs. They didn’t know what to do with their children, or where to get money for their next meal. Their desperation was palpable. I realized how they had so much potential to transform their lives, yet didn’t have the encouragement, support, and economic means to escape the cycle of poverty."
Initially, Kimberly was a bit hesitant about starting an organization, knowing how difficult and challenging it would be to launch and maintain it, but Monica was very optimistic about the possibilities of working together. It fueled the fire that had been burning in Kimberly for so long, and she had finally found the perfect partner to embark on this journey with. “Girl Up Initiative Uganda was launched with an initial investment of $100, in 2012. While I travelled back to South Africa to begin my master’s degree, Monica started offering business training and support for young mothers in the community. Within a few months, in the beginning of 2013, Monica started a partnership with a local school, St. James Bbiina Primary School, where she began mentorship and life skills training there for 50 girls. That was the start of our Adolescent Girls Program, which has so far impacted the lives of over 2,400 girls. We also secured our first donor who provided small investments monthly, which she continues to this day. Our idea had become something real.
What started off as a conversation and an investment of $100 USD has turned into a registered non-profit organization with an annual budget of $440,000, a team of 20 full-time Ugandan staff and a total reach of over 120,000 girls, youth, and young women through our programs. We’re growing and expanding every day and seeing the ripple effects of our efforts.”
Girl Up Uganda’s flagship program, The Adolescent Girls Program (AGP), aims to support and mentor adolescent girls living in the urban slum areas in Kampala from a young age. For girls to become part of the initiative, they must attend one of our partner schools and be in Class P4-6, targeting girls between the ages of nine and fifteen. The teachers work with our team to select eighty girls from the group to be part of the AGP program. The selection process is based on those most at risk and those with great leadership potential. The AGP consists of a cluster of synergistic activities designed to ensure that girls receive the skills, knowledge, tools, mentorship and support needed for them to develop self-confidence and their own voice, to help them thrive as leaders in their school and communities. This model has been refined over the past six years, and Kimberly and Monica are excited to see the continued impact the program has on their local communities. This year alone, Girl Up Uganda is working with twenty public schools, reaching 1,600 girls.
In recognition of the few economic opportunities for out-of-school young women in the communities the organization works in – Uganda has a 70% young unemployment rate – Girl Up Uganda launched the Mazuri Designs Hub. “After the GUIU team had piloted other unsuccessful economic empowerment programs, such as provision of small-startup capital and business trainings. We went back to the young women and asked them what they wanted to learn and be trained on, and they told us that they wanted to learn sewing, tailoring, and fashion design skills. That is how the idea started and today the Mazuri Designs Hub training program is a one-year vocational training course in fashion, design, and tailoring that is combined with entrepreneurial and personal skills training for out-of-school vulnerable young women, ages 16-35 years. The young women are trained by experienced tailors and given the opportunity to showcase their products at the fashion show graduation at the end of the course,” Kimberly explains.
“The focus on vocational training has provided the Mazuri Designs Hub trainees a marketable skill that they can use to earn an income after graduating. The young women trainees have access to the Mazuri Designs workshop where they gain hands-on skills and knowledge in client relations, customer service, and store management. As well as learning practical sewing and tailoring skills, sessions on business and entrepreneurship, sexual and reproductive health and social skills are also held for the young women. Topics covered include: introduction to business skills and management, business etiquette and marketing, business planning and strategy, communication skills, self-esteem and body image, teamwork, SRH, violence against women, and women’s rights. Together, the comprehensive training program provides them with the knowledge, skills, and self-confidence to succeed in business and start-up their own tailoring businesses.”
A result of teaching both vocational and personal life skills is that the young women are now more fully equipped with the knowledge, skills and self-confidence to find gainful employment or start up their own businesses. The focus on training in fashion and design is particularly successful because it has allowed the trainees to use their own creativity and skills to make products for immediate sale. The project has directly impacted the income of the participants. In a 2019 post-project survey, 67% young women reported that their average weekly income had increased after participating in the program, with 100% stating that this was due to the selling of sewing products. After the project, 10% of women reported sewing clothes for their family, 30% for income and 60% for both. Overall, Girl Up Uganda monitored an improvement in practical knowledge and skills and noted a large increase in income as a direct result of the course. This particularly rewarding when noting that 80% of trainees stated before the course that they wished to get better employment opportunities out of the training.
“We recently met up with Evelyn, a 30-year-old young woman who graduated from the Mazuri Designs Hub in August 2018, to discuss how her life was changed by the training. She told us: ‘My life was greatly influenced by the Mazuri training. I learnt how to be open and express myself without fear. I am now confident enough to share with the world my capabilities without fear. I know that when I start my business, it will be easy for me to look out for potential customers, because Girl Up gave me the chance to express myself to the world.’
The GUIU team are very proud of the way that the Mazuri graduates like Evelyn have used their new skills and entrepreneurial spirit to start generating income. We are also inspired that many of our graduates have told us that after the training they plan to pass on the training and learnings to other young women and are creating more jobs for them when they expand their own businesses.”
The Mazuri Designs Hub proves that creative professions help to build confidence in young women, because they allow them to discover their own unique talents and skills and offer opportunities for self-expression. This impact is amplified through the Mazuri Designs Hub training because many of the trainees come from backgrounds where they have not been encouraged to express themselves or develop their gifts. During the course, the trainees are encouraged to discover their creative gifts by designing their own clothes and accessories, choosing their own fabrics, and stepping outside of their comfort zone. Trying and testing their own ideas, instead of always being instructed, increases their self-confidence and self-esteem by showing them that they can achieve their goals independently and create beautiful products.
Merorine Ainamani, a 2019 graduate, shares her story of how her self-confidence grew after seeing the products she had created with her new tailoring skills. She told Girl Up Uganda, “My first product was a skirt and I felt really happy because I had made something so beautiful, yet I never imagined I would ever be able to. The skirt I made became my motivation to continue making clothes better than before."
Kimberly also believes in the power of collaborative professions, which fashion and design are by nature. Their trainees work together to learn and create innovative designs, which helps form a community based on creativity, friendship and fun.
“One event that helps to foster this atmosphere and build team-work skills is our annual Mazuri Fashion Show that celebrates the graduation of our trainees. The young women help to organize the event that provides them with the opportunity to showcase the products they have made during the training period. Parents, guardians and other family members are invited to see the creations of these young women. During the fashion shows, the young women display not only their beautiful products, but also their increased confidence as they strut on the runway before their families and the GUIU and Mazuri team.”
This year, Girl Up Uganda will be launching a gender synchronized programming so that boys and girls participate in activities together to gain a better understanding of each other’s views, opinions and needs. The boys and girls will come together for sports matches and gender dialogues to challenge traditional gender stereotypes while having fun. They will also be trained together in making reusable sanitary pads out of locally available materials for personal use and income generation. Including the boys in this activity will contribute to their understanding of menstruation, thereby decreasing stigma and shame girls may feel in connection to menstruation.
“During 2020, we also aim to become more involved with advocacy campaigns at the district and local level, in order to influence powerful actors in the communities in which our programs run. We recognize that we cannot achieve our work in silo, so creating long-lasting relationships with key local leaders and stakeholders is key to the sustainability of all of GUIU’s programs.”
Girl Up teaches girls to dream big so they can achieve their goals. Kimberly and Monica seek to do the same so that GUIU can continue to expand its programming and impact more girls and young women across Kampala and beyond.