(Photo: Megan with Girl Up girls and Sharon, Program Assistant)
“I want to be the voice of the voiceless. But first I need to learn how to be the voice for myself. That is what Girl Up is teaching me to do.”
I almost cried tears of joy when I heard Catherine, a participant in the Adolescent Girl Program (AGP), say these words. Just a month ago I had written similar words in my journal while back home in New York: how I was being given the chance to be a voice for the voiceless by coming to volunteer with the Girl Up team. I was excited to bring my writing, marketing and other communication skills to their team to contribute to their mission of lifting girls and women out of poverty and showing them other possibilities for their lives and futures.
Now here I was, sitting on a bench outside of the Girl Up office in Kampala, Uganda, having this rich conversation with Catherine. And it was only my third day of volunteering! One of my projects involves supporting Girl Up with raising funds for the AGP, so I wanted to speak with some of the girls in the program. It’s one thing to read about impact in an annual report; it’s another thing entirely to sit face to face and hear from the girls themselves about the positive changes they’re experiencing.
Catherine, age 14, went on to share how important the AGP training is because she’s learning things about sexuality, reproductive health and menstruation, all topics that her parents are afraid to talk about. They fear they’ll be “spoiling” her if they talk about sex.
“AGP is actually doing my parents a favor!” Catherine laughed. She went on to tell me how knowing this information doesn’t spoil her, it gives her the confidence to say no to sex, avoiding the potential risk of early pregnancy and the dangers of childbirth, and to focus on her education instead. She has a dream of becoming a lawyer and is committed to studying hard to reach her dream.
This young girl’s hunger to learn and grow was palpable. She was even quoting Napoleon Hill during our conversation! “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”
This inspiring message was reinforced by the year-long training she received through Girl Up. Catherine now sees how life is a do-it-yourself project! When I asked her to tell me more about this, and specifically how she might talk about this to other girls who hadn’t gone through the AGP, she said:
“You are the one to make life what you really want to make it to be. Just take a step. Don’t end in thinking about what you want, take a step towards it. The longest journey starts with the first step and believing that you can actually do it. Think of things positively. Instead of saying I can’t do this, believe that you can do anything. You can do all things.”
During my first two weeks with Girl Up, I’ve already gotten to meet with 9 girls who have gone through the AGP, and visit 3 schools whose girls have also participated in the AGP. In addition to hearing the different stories these girls have to share, I’m getting to see the confidence they have and the respect they’re learning to have for their own bodies and lives.
(Photo: Megan in the circle of girls with Girl Up coaches)
At one school visit, I stood in a circle with a group of girls and three coaches from the Girl Up team (Coach Gloria, Coach Sharon and Coach Carol) under a mango tree, dancing and singing a song that reminded us how every part of our body belongs to us. These girls sang and danced enthusiastically, empowered by knowing their body is theirs! I was deeply touched by this experience, knowing that for most of their lives, these girls were most likely taught otherwise.
Not only am I deeply impressed by these girls, I’m also incredibly inspired by each member of the Girl Up team. The team is mostly made up of local youth in their 20’s who are stepping into a leadership beyond their years. Their commitment and passion for their work is beyond anything I’ve seen. They know the struggles these girls and women face, and most times, have experienced something like it themselves.
(Photo: Megan with Girl Up staff in the office with gifts of donated books and art materials)
From what I see so far, in my 20 days of being here on the ground in Kampala, Girl Up is part of a larger movement of change that is sweeping through this country. They are collaborating with other organizations and local leaders; they are being supported by sponsors and donors from around the world; and they are catalyzing changes on individual, community and country-wide levels. They are changing norms, policies and practices. And they show up to this work every day with resilient spirits; although they’ve seen some of the worst poverty, inequality, and gender based violence, they are always quick to share a smile, a story, a song, and sometimes, even a dance. Their positivity and caring has swept me up and now I’m honored to be a part of the larger movement that Girl Up is.
To read more about Megan's experience in Uganda and with Girl Up Initiative Uganda, check out her blog!