By: Stefania Wisofschi
It’s time to listen to women and girls and work together to create inclusive systems that enables ALL members to unlock their full potential.
It was the end of another long day in central Uganda. On our way home we passed the sign for Butale’s Mixed Primary School. “Toil and Achieve,” it read. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the words represented a recurrent theme that we would soon understand all too well.
I spent my summer working at the Rakai Health Science Program and learning alongside the DREAMS team, which is a program committed to helping girls develop into “Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-Free, Mentored, and Safe women.” The DREAMS core package offers evidence-informed approaches that address the structural drivers that directly or indirectly increase girls’ HIV risk, including poverty, gender inequality, sexual violence, and lack of education. On one visit to a primary school in Kyotera, I remember walking around a classroom taking in the colourful informational posters when I noticed names written on many of the wood posts. Margret. Scovia. The names of peers etched under a crippling inscription, “Never Forget”. Each name I read aloud was a stark reminder of the catastrophic outcomes that the burden of poverty triggers in these at-risk communities.
Uganda has experienced substantial economic growth over the past 20 years, but relics of the past remain deeply entrenched. Persisting inequities created systemic barriers, which cascaded into multiplier effects and reinforced the risks and vulnerabilities experienced by women and girls.
As I sat at one of the school benches, I was overwhelmed by a grave realization. In Uganda, girls like me are more likely than their male counterparts to experience poverty, sexual and gender-based violence, poor health outcomes, and interrupted education. In the current sociopolitical system, the adolescent girl faces disproportionate risks due to restricted control over her social, economic, and health outcomes.
The low status of the girl child denies girls of fundamental rights and needs. A girl child has a lower chance of being educated. She is vulnerable to exploitation. A sick girl is often neglected and deferred treatment. Gender bias persists.
There must be a paradigm shift, whereby girls and boys are viewed as equals within society and the family. This change in societal attitudes may be achieved through increased public awareness of the value of the girl child, but, thus far interventions have been characterized by superficial engagements and narrow program time frames. Without challenging deep-rooted perceptions, the destructive cycle of poverty is perpetuated, presenting new challenges for each generation. We must do more to ensure that girls, like Margret and Scovia have a future. I believe that strengthening the status of the girl child is foundational to advancing gender equality, improving health outcomes, and driving progress.
Uganda is a colouful nation paralleled only by its diverse landscapes. Despite a past ravaged by political instability, its people persisted. “Toil and Achieve.” The resilient nation that combatted the HIV/AIDS epidemic must now rise above a longstanding challenge. Age-old traditions perpetuate social norms that disadvantage women and girls creating destabilizing systems that ultimately threaten livelihoods. Disruptive change must occur to advance female empowerment and grant them safe and active social and economic participation.
When I look back at my time in Uganda, I am granted hope by the strong and courageous women leaders that I met. Women like Mme Josephine Kizza, who honed her entrepreneurial talents to grow her family’s dairy farm into the St. Jude’s College of Agro Ecology training center. Mme Kizza’s contributions extend far beyond the agro-ecology projects and agricultural training seminars; she serves as the leader of several women’s groups and dedicates her time to expanding opportunities for women in her community. She has spent her life challenging the narrative that women do not have the strength or ability to contribute to their communities. The Millennium Declaration highlighted “that giving women their fair share is the only way to effectively combat poverty, hunger, and disease and to stimulate development that is truly sustainable.” When given the tools of opportunity, women have demonstrated to not only lift themselves out of poverty, but their families and communities too. They’ve been entrapped long enough in a system that falsely demands them to “Toil and Achieve”. Progress is slow because women remain confined to a destructive cycle that prevents autonomy and awards little decision-making control. To achieve, we must listen to women and girls and work together to create inclusive systems that enable ALL members to unlock their full potential. Because like Mme Kizza proclaimed, “Women hold Africa’s future.”
Stefania Wisofschi is a former MMASc Global Health Systems in Africa student at Western University. Her practicum experience in Uganda reinforced her passion for advancing global health equity and international development. What she took away regarding the importance of working together with and for communities to drive change is exactly the message she’s seeking to amplify in her work.