Giving girls hope to live, learn and laugh again

22 April 2021 by Mim Friday, Viva Africa Director

Behind their face masks, the girls wore grins from ear to ear. You knew because their eyes shone. These emotions of joy and excitement were mirrored by Helen Grant MP, the Prime Minister's Special Envoy for Girls’ Education, during her visit to our project in Kampala in March 2021.

It was a special moment for us, allowing the Children at Risk Action Network (CRANE) and the international children’s charity, Viva, an opportunity to showcase and shout about the life-transforming work we have achieved for girls in the city for the past eight years.

Mrs Grant visited one of 18 Creative Learning Centres we have established in Uganda since 2013, when Viva and CRANE began its partnership with the UK Government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office, to initially run the Girls’ Education Challenge project.

Our original four-year project (2013-2017) rapidly and significantly improved girls’ skills in literacy and numeracy, plus other life skills, and led most girls who attended back into mainstream schooling. Ninety per cent of the girls remained in school for a minimum of one year and took end-of-year or national exams. Some 3,195 girls (compared to a target of 2,730 girls) spent time learning in a Creative Learning Centre. Training was also given to 700 teachers from 46 mainstream schools, 55 family mentors and 1,225 parents.

The current GEC extension project (2017-2024) is entitled ‘Building girls to Live, Learn, Laugh and SCHIP’. SCHIP stands for Strong, Creative, Holistic, Inclusive, Protective, Quality Education. A total of 27,736 children, both girls and boys, are benefiting from our project, ranging from attending a Creative Learning Centre, to accessing learning resources such as IT lessons or books through a mobile library.

During her visit, Mrs Grant saw for herself how girls are helped to acquire a range of work-oriented skills, and benefit from reading clubs and IT classes. She also spoke to parents about the support they receive from the project to better support their children’s learning. Addressing those gathered, Mrs Grant said, "Many, many thanks to CRANE and Viva for your incredible work. I see the passion in your eyes and the pride when you tell me the stories of your young people and how they are progressing."

Meeting the girls was an important part of Mrs Grant’s visit. The science demonstration showed how girls are benefitting from being hands on with laboratory equipment and models to understand subjects such as electricity. This is not possible for all schools; only one in five secondary schools in Kampala have equipment like this. It is so difficult to teach children without them being able to touch and see. By allowing girls in project schools to access science in this way, it means a career in STEM is within reach for a girl, something many people perhaps never thought was possible.

It was at the science section that Mrs Grant met Faridah. Aged 16, she dropped out of school due to health reasons. After spending all their savings on medical bills, Faridah’s mother could no longer afford her school fees. By enrolling in a Creative Learning Centre she was trained in literacy, numeracy, vocational skills and ICT. Faridah re-joined mainstream education to pursue her A-levels and is now is at university pursuing a Bachelors Degree of Science in Education. She dreams of one day becoming a teacher and being able to shape the lives of many children just like her.

Throughout her morning at the CRANE and Viva event, Mrs Grant became increasingly connected with, and excited by, the variety of learning opportunities we are providing for children.

She was clearly impressed by the mobile library truck and even discovered a book she had loved to read as a child! More than 86,000 books and other resources have been shared with children through the project, and this has continued even during Covid-19. She also listened to children read and played a few rounds of Scrabble, which is a great literacy tool.

Moving on to see the mobile ICT suite gave Mrs Grant the opportunity to meet Maureen, who is currently working as CRANE’s ICT intern, supporting children in schools to get basic ICT skills. Our project has supported 52 schools with ICT skills, and provided 446 computers and tablets.

Maureen has come a long way in the last five years. Mrs Grant heard how Maureen’s family are refugees from D R Congo. They fled the long-running war there and moved to Kampala. At that time, Maureen was 16 years old and had been out of school for two years because of financial difficulties. Our mentors encouraged the father to save money for her daughter’s education and supported him with a refrigerator to generate income.

Maureen was enrolled into one of Viva/CRANE’s Creative Learning Centres for six months and, having successfully completed the term, was enrolled into secondary school. She sat her final high school exams and plans to study Human Resource Management at University. She knows first-hand that for too many women and girls who are part of the world’s growing refugee population, education remains an aspiration, rather than a reality, and wants others to follow the path she has taken.

To achieve dreams for more girls, and to change their course in life, we recognise we must have a wider influence beyond the girls we can directly impact. That is why training teachers in 52 mainstream schools is so important. As a result, they have implemented new creative learning strategies and teaching practice in their classrooms, and some families were able to better support their children through economic empowerment. Schools have also been engaging in safeguarding training, and 82 per cent of parents and caregivers are now confident that their children are safe from abuse in schools.

Almost 3,000 parents are in savings groups that help to keep their children in school. Almost 500 parents are also directly supported with income generating activities. This holistic approach helps to break down many of the barriers that children face when accessing education including early pregnancy, distance, child protection issues, poverty, disability, stigma over menstruation and violence are all barriers to girls’ learning. This had led to eight in 10 girls in Uganda not attending secondary school, and almost half of 15-24 year old females being functionally illiterate.

Alongside education, equipping girls with practical skills for life is crucial too. Mrs Grant got to see girls making briquettes, which are an environmentally friendly cooking fuel and a great way of earning income to raise money for school fees.

At the tailoring school demonstration, Mrs Grant was given the gift of a face mask in the colours of the Ugandan flag, which she proudly wore for the rest of her visit. She met a girl who after, spending six months at a Creative Learning Centre, did not want to go back to school but instead took up skills training, with a focus on tailoring. She is now working towards her dream to start her own workshop.

We are proud of the fact that our education project includes a particular focus on supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities, and 199 girls are being directly supported. Mrs Grant heard how CRANE has been instrumental in opening an Educational Assessment Resource Centre, and referrals of children with disabilities started. This is the only active centre of its kind in the whole of Uganda. CRANE has also developed a Learning Needs Identification Tool, which has been recognised by the Ministry of Education and is being rolled out across the country. It allows children to get assessed when they begin their education, which is a ground-breaking tool for Kampala's primary schools, especially when it comes to supporting children through national exams.

As Mrs Grant’s visit drew to a close, she had the time to talk with a young woman called Sharon, who is a true inspiration to other girls. After both of her parents died, Sharon stayed with her grandmother. It was during that time that Sharon joined one of our Creative Learning Centres.

Whilst there, Sharon was taught numeracy, literacy and how to generate household income. Sharon then worked with her grandmother to implement the skills she had learned and saved money to support her taking of national O-Level exams. She went on to enrol in a Modern Nursery Teachers’ Institute to undertake an Early Childhood Development course for two years. She was recognised for her exceptional teaching skills, and took a job as a teacher at Goshem Christian School, which is one of CRANE’s partner schools.

In the recent elections, Sharon contested for the position of Youth Councillor at Semuto sub-county level – and won! She is passionate about empowering other girls with self-confidence to make the most of opportunities they have and to achieve their dream, just like she has done.

As Helen Grant MP saw for herself, our Girls’ Education Challenge project gives Sharon, and thousands of other girls like her, the hope to live, learn and laugh again in spite of their difficult life circumstances. We are rescuing girls from violence and abuse by giving them safe, creative, quality, education – and we are in it for the long haul. Through CRANE’s well-established network of churches and NGOs in Kampala, supported by Viva’s international expertise and the UK Government, we are changing the lives of more girls to fulfil their potential.