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CAFWA: Changing Lives for Young Girls in Northern Uganda

11/24/16 by Blane Bachelor

Working in some of the most vulnerable communities in Northern Uganda, Community Action Fund for Women in Africa (CAFWA) is a nonprofit that focuses on empowering women through programs within three different areas: microfinance, agriculture, and adult literacy. The programs help women and their families become financially secure, and thus increase access to food, healthcare, and children’s ability to attend school.

In particular, one of the most pressing challenges in many African countries is low literacy. In remote parts of Northern Uganda, however, the problem is even grimmer, especially for girls. In some of the most impoverished areas, a mere three percent of girls continue to secondary school, and the majority drops out in third or fourth grade. The organization launched a new initiative in early 2016 focused specifically on building awareness on the importance of and support for educating the young girls in the community. Moving into 2017, CAFWA’s goals are to continue to build parental support, but to also provide academic mentors with an emphasis on girls completing primary school and continuing to secondary.

Keeping young girls in school is integral to the mission of CAFWA.
Keeping young girls in school is integral to the mission of CAFWA. Photo courtesy of CAFWA

As CAFWA Executive Director Linda Cole explains, most women in these communities do not have access to feminine products. So many young girls stay at home during their menstrual cycle instead of attending school. That, in turn, causes them to fall behind on their classwork, causing the overwhelming majority to drop out by the time they reach secondary school. The cycle tends to repeat itself, making it nearly impossible for girls to receive an education, which severely hinders their chances to eventually lift themselves out of poverty.

To address that challenge from the grassroots level, CAFWA developed kits that include a high-quality reusable sanitary pad called an AFRIpad, which is made in Uganda, as well as six pairs of underwear and soap. CAFWA staff show recipients, including girls, their families, and caregivers, how to use and wash the pads, and parents make a commitment to keeping their girls in school.

"Women’s issues, especially reproductive health, are not talked about in these communities," Cole says. “But people are seeing a solution and they want it for their family. I remember this one older man who bought four kits, for his three daughters and his wife. And that was kind of a big deal. The overall response has been amazing.”

Community participation is an important part of any successful program.
Community participation is an important part of any successful program. Photo courtesy of CAFWA

An important part of the program is that the kits aren’t being given away. Even though they cost about $11 U.S. to put together, CAFWA asks parents for 2,000 shillings (about $0.60 U.S.), which is equivalent to a day’s wages in the region. Attaching a cost to the kit helps parents and caretakers become more invested in the underlying objective of keeping their girls in school, Cole says. People who can’t afford a kit can perform community service to receive one.

"It’s not just that we’re handing out these pads," Cole says. “It’s about breaking the cycle of poverty. Girls are expected to help with chores, collecting firewood, fetching water, caring for siblings—and the missed days lead to failure in school. Add on getting your period and not having menstrual pads, and they are very unlikely to continue their education. Parents don't always put the two together. Once they connect the dots, girls have a greater chance of succeeding.”

Since launching the program, CAFWA has provided nearly 1,000 kits to girls across more than 30 communities in northern Uganda. It’s too early to gauge the impact of the program on school attendance figures or other statistics, but the response in local communities has been so positive that CAFWA is planning to expand the program.

According to Cole, one reason the AFRIpads program has been so successful is because CAFWA staff come from and live in the communities in northern Uganda where they work, giving them invaluable firsthand insight into the challenges of the region. "So many times with nonprofits, the donor has an idea of what they want to see accomplished, but they don’t have buy-in from the local communities," she explains.

"Providing access to the menstrual kits has been a great start, but if we really want to see girls in secondary school we need to do more," Cole says. “Our first step is to work with the girls of women who are already in our programs. These families are the most vulnerable in their communities, often living on less than $1 a day.”

Cole herself has played an integral role in CAFWA’s accomplishments. A recipient of the 2014 Leah Horowitz Humanitarian award, she "found her niche" in volunteer work prior to starting university after seeing a newspaper ad for volunteers in Africa. She then spent several years volunteering and working in Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique, eventually settling in Uganda for four years. Cole founded CAFWA in 2006 with an emphasis on serving women, who, during the country’s long-running civil war, were abducted, forced to fight, became girl mothers, or simply had to drop out of school to help their families.

It’s about breaking the cycle of poverty in these communities.
It’s about breaking the cycle of poverty in these communities. Photo courtesy of CAFWA

"My work brings me enormous pleasure," Cole says. “I often have young women coming up to me after a meeting with them to thank me, saying, ‘I always thought I was stupid, but now I understand that it wasn't my fault I failed in school. I will send my daughters to school every day.’ It is such a profound experience. It’s these young women who will break that vicious cycle of poverty.”

The holidays are a time that many of us think a little bit more about giving—giving our time, giving our money, maybe even giving of material things to clothing or toy drives. Here at ExOfficio, we try to help out whenever we can, and this year we will be donating clothing to CAFWA because we believe in their mission. To learn more about CAFWA, visit their website here.

Originally written by RootsRated for ExOfficio.