- Girls’ clubs in Uganda offer a safe haven for young women amid high rates of youth unemployment, teen pregnancy and early marriage.
- A study finds the clubs are improving young women’s ability to earn an income and delay marriage and childbearing.
- The research is helping design programs that empower girls and young women socially and economically.
Jazirah Namukose, 18, left school feeling the sting of rejection. Classmates discriminated against her because of her disability — a clubfoot.
But her life changed when she started going to the Kikaaya girls’ club in northern Kampala, Uganda. She gained skills and the confidence to start her own business — and found friends who didn’t treat her differently because of her disability.
“You have to stand up for yourself. I’ve learned that here,” she says.
Namukose is one of 70,000 girls and young women between the ages of 13 and 22 who have joined girls’ clubs in Uganda in search of friendship and a way to make a living.
The clubs are run by BRAC Uganda, a branch of the Bangladesh-based international organization, BRAC, known for its efforts to empower poor people, especially women. Their 1,505 clubs in Uganda offer games, music, sex education, financial literacy, vocational training, and access to microfinance for young women trying to become entrepreneurs.
A major goal of the clubs, say organizers, is to provide a safe haven for girls amid high unemployment and societal pressures that drive high rates of early marriage and teenage pregnancy. Nearly 60% of Uganda’s population is younger than 20.
Now, research suggests the clubs are having a positive effect and could help unlock a development quandary — how to design programs that empower girls and young women socially and economically.
Girls who have been members of the clubs for two years are 72% more likely to be involved in income-generating activities, such as getting a job or becoming self-employed, than girls who did not join the clubs.
They are 26% less likely to get pregnant as a teenager and 58% less likely to marry or move in with a boyfriend.
That’s according to a recent study evaluating the effectiveness of the clubs and BRAC’s Empowerment and Livelihoods for Adolescents program.
Perhaps most dramatically, the number of girls reporting having had sex unwillingly was cut nearly in half — from 14% to about 8%, says the study by researchers from the World Bank’s Africa Gender Innovation Lab, the London School of Economics,Bocconi University, University College London, and BRAC.
These are all “pretty big and meaningful impacts,” says Niklas Buehren, a World Bank economist and co-author of the study, Women’s Empowerment in Action: Evidence from a Randomized Control Trial in Africa.
To BRAC, the findings reflect the clubs’ emphasis on teaching “life skills” covering such topics as sex education, leadership, negotiation, sexual and reproductive health, gender and “bride price” or dowry. Such knowledge enables young women to take care of themselves and know their rights, says Empowerment and Livelihoods for Adolescents Program Manager Jennifer Kemigisha.
“What is most important to us are the issues surrounding sexuality — sexual exploitation, reproductive health, family planning — because it is a big issue in the country among adolescent girls,” she says.
Statistics reveal some of the challenges faced by young women in Uganda. The teenage pregnancy rate is 31%. About 16% of girls have sex before age 15, and 14% of girls between 15 and 19 suffer sexual abuse, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics.
Uganda also has one of the highest rates in Africa of young women out of the workforce — an estimated 86%, notes the study.
Similar problems are seen in other developing countries where women are virtually locked out of the workforce and locked into a pattern of early marriage and childbearing and dependence on men, says the study.
Research has shown that delaying a woman’s first child, particularly in the teenage years, can change the trajectory of her life for the better and improve outcomes for her children.
Nakand Maimunah, 19
The key question is whether jumpstarting a young woman’s career during adolescence can also help put her on the path to greater social and economic empowerment.
BRAC’s program in Uganda provided an “ideal setting to try to figure that out,” says Buehren.
“We don’t have a lot of evidence for this kind of program where there is a combination of life skills, vocational skills, and the safe space of the club,” he says.
The World Bank has tested different approaches to empowering young women under the Adolescent Girls Initiative, supported by the governments of Australia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, as well as the Nike Foundation.
The Bank piloted projects in Afghanistan, Haiti, Jordan, Lao PDR, Liberia, Nepal, Rwanda, and South Sudan and evaluated five of them. Only the South Sudan project, also operated by BRAC, had the same model as the Uganda clubs.
The pilots tried to address workplace barriers to young women by providing a package of services including vocational, business, and life skills, with varying levels of success, said Sarah Nedolast, the coordinator for the now-closed Adolescent Girls Initiative.
“One thing that is striking is that all of the programs had very high retention rates, which suggests the girls found value in the programs and when such programs are tailored to address their needs barriers to participation can be overcome,” said Nedolast.
At the Kikaaya girls’ club one day last June, girls played volleyball on an outdoor court before gathering in a nearby clubhouse. There, a leader read a story about rape — one of several books on tough topics such as teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and the dangers of illicit drugs.
As club members boisterously sang songs in the background, Namukose said the club has helped her come out of her shell.
“They love me and I’ve learned how to speak … to the community. And I’ve grown up knowing even if you have a disability or have any problem yourself, you don’t need to be out in fear.
“My hope is to be a businesswoman and help others who need help,” she said.
A short walk down a red dirt road, Belindah Malutoaya, 21, is raising 200 chickens, supplying eggs and meat to supermarkets — a business made possible by small loans through the club’s microfinance program and mentoring from an aunt in the business.
“In five years’ time I want to have a very big farm — a big, big farm — with so many chickens, like a thousand chickens. Yeah, that’s what I want,” said Malutoaya, a single parent raising a young daughter.
Nakand Maimunah, 19, who mentors other girls at the club, said she believes young women have more power than they realize.
“Here, in Buganda [a subnational kingdom within Uganda], they usually minimize girls. They think girls cannot do some jobs. They think the office is only for men. … Why should jobs be for the men only? We all have equal rights and what a man can do, I can also do it.”