Final reflections on the Empowering Girls with Disabilities in Uganda project

25 March 2024 by Leonard Byabagambi, Head of Programmes, Cheshire Services Uganda

When our project started, the priority was to ensure that girls with disabilities could access and learn in mainstream schools: we focused on making the school environment more inclusive and accessible and trained teachers in inclusive methodologies.

Our other big priority was to empower girls with disabilities. We believe this was a success. The girls are more confident now and many are planning to continue their education and go to university. Some girls gave speeches on national radio stations or in front of ministers and members of the Ugandan Parliament. They have aspirations for their futures.

What challenges did we face?

Our biggest challenge was supporting girls with disabilities in a context where policies and guidelines on inclusive education were unclear. As a result, we found ourselves working closely with the Ministry of Education and Sports to help shape these policies and guidelines. We are delighted that a draft policy is now with the Ministry of Education and Sports for review, guidance and approval. We also worked with the Kampala Capital City Authority and the Department of Special Needs Education right from the start of the project.

Another challenge we faced was that teachers were not trained to teach children with disabilities. Most teachers expected girls with disabilities to be in special rather than mainstream schools. However, we were determined that girls with disabilities should study and transition with their peers.

We also found it hard to keep some girls in school as their families often relocated. New developments in Kampala city attracted the families, as did better jobs and cheaper living expenses. Keeping track of girls was very hard at times. We ended up working with over 300 schools for this reason: we wanted to ensure that the girls we supported were going to school regardless of whether the girls had moved and relocated to a different school within Kampala city. Sometimes girls relocated as far as 300 km from the city. This had important logistical and financial implications for the project, such as procuring vehicles to find and transport them.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a huge upset and disrupted the project delivery. Learning losses for girls were significant at first. In response to this challenge, we adjusted our activities to ensure girls could keep learning remotely. We also called and visited girls at their homes to find out what they were going through and whether their needs had changed. We also worked with the National Curriculum Development Centre on adapting and delivering learning materials to the girls. What surprised us was that the girls seemed to be learning more during the pandemic and almost all the girls we supported returned to school when the lockdown ended.

What did we achieve?

When we started, many of the girls had very low self-esteem. We addressed this issue by setting up Girls’ Clubs and inviting mentors, teachers, lawyers and doctors to talk about their disabilities and how to create life opportunities for themselves. We even invited students with disabilities who were in university to share their stories with the girls. Some girls were transformed by meeting these people. I remember about a girl who had no fingers. She would hide her hands in her clothes most of the time. She then started joining the clubs and stopped hiding her hands. Some girls started taking leadership roles in their schools.

When working with girls with disabilities, it important to keep in mind that progress may happen beyond literacy and numeracy. Some girls have severe impairments. Their progress is often not about learning but about how confident they become and how they learn to relate to their disabilities and other people. For a girl who cannot speak, a great progress is being able to articulate words and communicate with her peers.

What did we learn?

Working with national and local government authorities was key to supporting girls with disabilities effectively. The National Curriculum Development Centre did a great job at adapting the learning material to girls with disabilities – they converted it into large print and developed some audio-visual aids and braille for girls who were blind. Having good relationships with the government also meant that when movement was restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic, we could get permits to visit girls with severe impairments who had no access to food or medical treatments.

It was also essential that we developed trust and strong relationships with girls’ caregivers. Caregivers were instrumental. At the start, some of them were not open to the idea of girls attending mainstream schools. But as we progressed, they became supportive. As the project completes, their involvement is very high. Their engagement was important in ensuring girls could access rehabilitation, undergo surgeries and receive medications on time. We learned that it is also important to work with the girls’ extended families. We worked with caregivers and siblings but in some situations, caregivers passed away and we had to reach out to another relative who was not connected to the programme.

Girls with disabilities tend to be the most vulnerable in any community. When working with girls with disabilities it is important to keep in mind what the girls and their caregivers need and the challenges they are going through. We found that one of the key challenges to access education for girls with disabilities was long distance to school. Also, public transport was not an option for girls using wheelchairs or crutches. So, we procured buses to take girls to school and engaged with the Ministry of Works to ensure that the transport system was accessible to girls with disabilities. This made a huge difference on girls’ school attendance.

Safeguarding is also a priority when working with girls with disabilities. We we worked very hard on improving our safeguarding expertise and capacity. It is important to focus on keeping girls with disabilities safe from the start. Equally, focusing on livelihood opportunities for girls with disabilities is something that should be done from the start to ensure continuity of learning for the girls and support by their caregivers. Also, it is important to keep communities engaged and reinforce messages around the importance of educating girls with disabilities.

Finally, it is important to ensure local organisations play a central role in delivering education programming. Cheshire Services Uganda was the only local organisation which led a GEC project. As a local organisation we have an in-depth knowledge of what is happening on ground. We have learned a huge amount from delivering this project and working with the GEC Fund Manager. We feel this experience has empowered us to do better as a smaller organisation.