What is a conversation without a girl or young woman?
The world needs a constant reminder of how the meaningful involvement of girls and young women in decision-making is a fundamental aspect of realizing societal growth and sustainable development. Movements and projects aimed at girls’ leadership and civic inclusion have seen a huge rise in recent years, as Covid-19 laid bare the systemic inequities stymying true change. For a decade, Girl Up Initiative Uganda (GUIU) has been on a journey of growth, adaptation, and unlearning. As a young women-led and run organization, we have faced many roadblocks in disrupting and challenging institutionalized patriarchy and youth-directed ageism. And while we’ve grappled with these external realities, we have also recognized the need for introspection. How have we, as a girl and youth-focused institution, unconsciously participated in and perpetuated potentially unjust practices?
In 2021, GUIU entered into the She Leads Project, a five-year consortium project funded by Terre des Hommes Netherlands. The She Leads Project brings together feminist and women’s rights civil society organizations and girl and women-led groups in a joint effort to increase the sustained influence of girls and young women in decision-making and the transformation of gender norms in formal and informal institutions.
Since the project's onset, GUIU has been learning about the critical need to couple our programmatic work with girl-led advocacy and policy-influencing efforts to reinforce our mission. In examining how government actors, decision-makers, and policies fall short of adequately addressing violations against girls and women, we were forced to look inward. As the two sayings go, “charity begins at home” and “practice what you preach”, we dedicated ourselves to operationalizing girls’ leadership and accountability by creating an experimental girls’ advisory council. In taking stock of our growth after ten years, we believe this is one step in the right direction in embodying our founding values.
The Girls’ Advisory Council was formed to represent and bring a meaningful voice to the views of girls, who are the core of our institution's operations and whose opinions feed into the organization's strategies. This council, composed of 11 “Big Sisters”—adolescent girls and young women who graduated from our core, flagship Adolescent Girls Program (AGP) and now act as mentors to current AGP participants—who were selected by their respective coaches and have demonstrated promising leadership. This space provides these experienced young leaders with a more challenging space to explore their leadership skills and put their knowledge into practice. Each girl will serve a two-year term, and one identified council member will represent her peers at our Ugandan Board meetings. Girls will meet periodically to discuss various aspects of GUIU: from nitty-gritty program design to how we measure success to gaps in our approaches. Feedback will then be integrated into existing and new organizational policies; designing and enhancing relevant programmatic elements; and setting strategic direction.
In January, we held a Girls Council Induction Meeting to onboard the girls, agree on a joint agenda, and develop a plan of action. Cissy Namulemere, one of the members, shared her excitement about how being a part of this group would help her realize a personal goal she made for herself in the new year:
“One of my goals this year is to become a student leader at Our Lady of Consolata Secondary School, and being chosen as a council member has made me believe I can be a student leader as well and gain the tools to excel in this position for my fellow students.”
At GUIU, we believe that conversation without the voice of a girl is in itself a discriminatory practice—especially those regarding the lived realities of girls and young women, and those impacting their everyday lives and well-being. Too often, uninformed decisions are made based on stereotypes and harmful, gender-blind norms leading to miss-channeled resources, delayed societal growth, and continuous unquestioned breaches of girls’ basic human rights. While this is a first for us at GUIU, we are committed to learning alongside our girls’ council, making adjustments and changes when necessary. In a space hyper-focused on unsustainable ‘scale’ and ‘growth’, we are working to give ourselves grace to transform from within while manifesting our gender-equal, girl-led vision for the future.