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Volunteering in Uganda with Girl Up Uganda

Hi, I'm Janice, the Business and Marketing Advisor to GUIU. Three days after I emailed Kim, the Deputy Director of GUIU and came on board as a volunteer last July, I started researching flights to Kampala. I'm the type of person who likes to get her hands dirty and hear stories first hand. To not just donate my skills and time from home, but to get on a plane and have the experience of volunteering in Uganda as well.

The purpose of my visit to Girl Up Initiative Uganda was to experience the organization’s Adolescent Girls Training Program, get to know the girls, and learn more about the business operations side of Mazuri Designs. Living in Chicago, I feel very far removed from the day-to-day goings-on so it was important for me to spend 2 weeks with the team to better understand the nonprofit. This would enable me to provide value to the best of my ability as an advisor and volunteer. Also, I wanted to get to know the staff outside of their GUIU roles and have some fun connecting across cultures.

I want to share one of my many stories from my visit with GUIU. It was the day that I visited the Girl Up Club at St. James Parish Bbiina primary school, a short distance from the Girl Up Uganda office, and the first school for GUIU to partner with. The Senior teacher and approximately 40 Girl Up Club girls were kind enough to come to school and meet with me even though their school year had ended the week before. I learned school years here are from Februrary through November, with December and January being vacation months before the next school year begins. Our conversation this day focused mainly on the topics of reproductive health, puberty and menstruation.

We shared our experiences with life in general and the Girl Up Uganda program. They were very quiet and attentive. I wouldn’t say shy necessarily, as it may simply be their way to show respect. There were two girls sitting next to each other (whom I am sitting next to in the top image in the article) that enthusiastically raised their hands each time I asked a question to engage the group in conversation. I was grateful they felt comfortable enough with me and confident in themselves to be the first ones to volunteer each time, because the others slowly became a little braver, as long as they weren't first to go. Reminds me of when I was in primary school!

Thirty minutes in we reached a turning point! They were very curious about my personal experiences with menstruation. One question broke the dam of silence; suddenly hands shot up and everyone had questions about my personal period, why we as women bleed, what a ‘normal’ period length is, etc. It was wonderful that these girls who range in age from 8 to 16 years could so honestly and fearlessly ask questions on a topic that some might feel embarrassed to ask. They were hungry for knowledge and true facts, and were very curious about the changes in their bodies.

Girl Up Uganda is fortunate to have Hajara, a senior RN working in a hospital, teach them about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) as one of the Girl Up Uganda trainers. My visit and talk with the girls was a special bonus to their regular Girl Up Uganda curriculum.

I was embarrassed when I attempted to draw a uterus on the chalkboard and realized I didn’t know the name of the area where eggs are stored. I also knew to some degree in my head the shape of a uterus but it certainly isn’t what I drew.

In that moment I understood their questions for me. Not having absolute certainty over this body part and not being able to clearly articulate its function, their curiosity became mine.

Educating girls on sexual and reproductive health is powerful. It’s a weapon against bad decisions. With the correct knowledge on SRHR girls learn how pregnancy occurs so that they can avoid early pregnancy in a country where 1 in 3 girls will have a child before the age of 18. If an adolescent girl has a child, she will most likely drop out of school, be at risk of pregnancy-related health issues and have to raise the child as a single mother since the odds are good that at some point the father will stop supporting her and their child. As an uneducated single mother, she will then be trapped in a life of poverty and hopelessness.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights education keeps girls from becoming young mothers and becoming part of depressing statistics about women and girls, and instead allows them to take control over their bodily choices. The ultimate goal of Girl Up Uganda's program is to ensure that the girls complete primary school, move on to secondary school, and make their career dreams a reality.

Turning the conversation to future goals, I asked them what they want to be when they grow up. I also assured them that it was ok if they didn't know yet, as I was still figuring that one out myself.

One girl quickly replied with midwife. She explained that she knows a midwife in her community. I suggested that even though she is young, she may want to spend more time around her, to see how she works and get advice and informal training that can help her decide if it’s truly what career path she wants to take.

Another girl told me she wants to be a celebrity known for her singing. Another wants to be a doctor to treat sick people. And another wants to use her crafts skills of mat- and purse-making (learned from her Girl Up Club involvement) to sell them for money.

We then went outside and took photos for 20 minutes. Group photos, individual ones, everyone got their turn in front of the camera. They were a completely different group of girls when they were having fun versus taking about serious issues. Their personalities came alive!

As I was getting ready to leave, two girls asked if they could take a photo of me. We had connected somehow, and it was a beautiful and touching moment for me.

I now 'get' things much better than before and feel deeply connected to GUIU's mission.

Donating time as a volunteer with Girl Up Uganda is extremely rewarding, and I’m fortunate to have been able to make this trip to Uganda.

We’re on the lookout for volunteers with specific skill sets to help us grow in 2016. Email or leave a comment below if you'd like to get involved. You can volunteer in your spare time or even take a trip to volunteer in Uganda like I did!

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