By Hope Mafaranga
Every year New Vision, in its Woman Achiever Awards, recognises the unsung heroines, those women who have gone an extra mile to improve the conditions in their communities. In the ninth edition, New Vision, in partnership with UNFPA, is recognising women who have made tremendous contributions to education, especially helping girls who have dropped out of school due to pregnancy or other reasons, to go back to school or attain any form of skills training to better their lives
To register any success tackling the challenge of school dropouts among girls, you need bags of ambition. And Olivia Mugabirwe the founder of Peer Link Initiative Uganda, fits the bill. Mugabirwe is on a mission to sensitise communities about the importance of sanitary pads in keeping girls in school. She says she conceived the idea after seeing girls dropping out of school over simple reasons like lack of sanitary pads.
Mugabirwe also wanted to improve girls’ hygiene and reduce the rate of infection that resulted from using unhygienic pieces of cloth during menstruation. “Some of them are not comfortable going to school during menstruation. Imagine if it lasts for four days that means that that girl will not attend school at all,” Mugabirwe explains. Using pads to retain girls in schools “I was shocked when I was invited to attend a meeting at Peer Link Initiative, Uganda and was irritated by the topic of discussing sanitary pads.
I thought Mugabirwe was running mad to call us to discuss menstruation,” Umar Byamukama, one of the of community members of Nyarushanje in Rukungiri district says. He could not imagine that such a small thing could have a bearing on the girl’s school attendance. “After listening, I realised how wrong I was. I also realised that girls were stigmatised during their periods and we, as parents, were not guided them or even providing pads,” Byamukama says.
He adds that some of the girls seek pads from men in exchange for sex and end up getting pregnant, eventually dropping out of school. Byamukama is among the many community members that thought that talking about sanitary pads was a taboo. How she started While teaching at Namilyango College in Mukono, Mugabirwe started youth clubs with a focus on information exchange and talks about HIV. She would organise rural schools to visit their urban counterparts and share information.
During those school trips, she realised how ill–informed students in rural areas were and ended up becoming teenage parents. Thus in 2007, Mugabirwe chose to return to her village in Nyarushanje and started looking after teenage mothers to empower them to take care of their babies and avoid getting other unplanned pregnancies. “They used to call them ‘Olivia’s girls’ and many told me that I was going to spoil them and many will get pregnant again. After seeing the reformation, the girls are no longer called ‘Olivia’s girls’.
They are now contributing towards the development of this community,” she said. Mugabirwe has also started a library where community members and students come and read newspapers and books. Her inspiration Seeing young mothers and girls out of school breaks Mugabirwe’s heart. “I believe in empowering women and girls through education. Every girl should be given an opportunity to explore her potential,” she says.
Source of funding Through Kabale Diocese, Mugabirwe was linked to Misereor (an organisation that brings together all the bishops in Germany) and they have been funding the project. Many have gone through her hands. Over 250 girls have been trained in life skills that includes bakery, sewing, tailoring among others.
Men involvement Mugabirwe says she has chosen to involve men in sexual and reproductive health talks because some of them defi le girls and make them pregnant. “It is a waste of time to teach girls to prevent early pregnancies without telling the men who make them pregnant,” she explains.
Sustainability Mugabirwe adds that one of the things she has done to ensure that Peer Link lives on even after her death is building systems. She adds that they have set up a confectionery to generate income, and are also in the process of getting more books to build a bookshop where money will be generated to help more needy girls. “We have turned all the activities we do into social enterprise and this will help the project to live on for generations to come,” she says.
Who is Olivia Mugabirwe?
Mugabirwe attended Maryhill High School, Mbarara for her O’ and A’ level and later joined Makerere University for a bachelor of education degree.
After university, Mugabirwe taught at Namilyango College. She later went to Oslo University for a master’s degree in comprehensive education. When she returned, she got a lecturing job at Makerere University in the faculty of education. She is a single mother of one son who is at university.
Mugabirwe says when she started, many people were looking at the girls as a curse saying they had no place in the community. Her greatest pride is seeing a changed attitude towards teenage mothers.
Many people have embraced the project, and some girls come from far away seeking their help. “We are getting overwhelmed by the number of girls who turn up to seek life skills. Some of them come from as far as Ibanda, Kabale, Lyantonde and Masaka, but we still accommodate them,” she says.
Mugabirwe dreams of having a library complex to improve the reading culture. She plans to take care of a male child as well, given that most drug abusers and street children are boys
WHAT TRAINEES SAY ABOUT MUGABIRWE
Josephine Nakitende, 23 If it was not for Mugabirwe I would not have learnt the life skills that I have today. I am able to make table mats, necklaces and bags among others. She has taught us that we do not need a lot of capital to sustain ourselves.
Mackline Orishaba, 25 Mugabirwe taught me how to fi ght poverty. I never knew that being powerless and unskilled was an illness. Thank God, girls like me who dropped out of school and got a chance to meet Mugabirwe, have learnt life skills and how to be productive.
Melon Nimusiima The day I stepped at Peer Link Initiative Uganda, it was the beginning of my new life. My dreams have come to pass. I already see a bright future for myself with the skills I have attained under Mugabirwe’s tutorship