This International Women’s Day, Robinah Zawedde, Head Education Specialist for East Africa, reminds us how things are getting better for women and girls, but the fight still continues.
International Women’s Day celebrates the diverse experiences of women and girls. Globally, women and girls still face intersecting social, economic and cultural barriers to achieving happy and flourishing lives in 2020. As an international program working across 22 countries, Opportunity EduFinance is committed to understanding ongoing gender inequalities, and the crucial role education can play in breaking down these barriers.
For a girl living in an under-resourced community today, the more time she spends learning in a classroom, the greater her chances of success are in every facet of her life:
- She becomes far less likely to suffer from poor health and lives longer.
- Her children will be 50% more likely to live past age five and much more likely to receive a good education.
- She will gain more decision-making power in choosing her future spouse.
- She will have more empowerment within her household to advocate on behalf of herself and her future children.
- She will have higher future wages necessary for achieving financial independence.
To better understand the past and current reality for many girls living in Uganda today, I had the privilege to interview Robinah Zawedde about her own story as a young girl, and her experience as a mother, educator and now professional development trainer for other educators in Uganda. In her capacity as Head Education Specialist for East Africa, leading our EduQuality teams in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, Robinah demonstrates her commitment to supporting fair and inclusive access to education for all. She regularly offers her own story as inspiration to other women, encouraging them to see their potential to overcome the obstacles they face, achieve more than they previously imagined, and educate the next generation of girls to grow into empowered leaders in their communities and country.Robinah at EduQuality Nagalamma Cluster School, Uganda, October 2019
HOPE: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today Robinah. I realize your role as Head Education Specialist for East Africa keeps you quite busy! I’d like to start by asking about your own extensive experience working in education. What have you learnt about the intersecting social, economic and cultural barriers and opportunities some women and girls face in accessing education? Can you give some examples?
ROBINAH: From my experience there are still a number of barriers in Africa and Uganda in particular. The primary barrier limiting women and girls in the communities I work with is poverty. This factor pushes other cultural and social barriers and practices that say that women and girls are lower priorities. If we believe that only men can change the future with education, parents with limited resources are going to support their boy children in education first and foremost.
In Uganda, boys inherit land whereas girls do not, preventing many women from building and leading schools which requires obtaining both credit and land. The biggest number of school owners are men because it is very expensive for women to pull together the funds to purchase land.
The school environment plays a big role in supporting the girl child, yet the curricula and teachers often push boys towards subjects such as science. This makes girls feel they are not good enough to do certain things. For example, some teachers believe that class captains should only be boys. Others may say things to girl students like “This is physics. How did you end up here?” or “Did you know that mathematics is a difficult subject for girls?” Girls are then pushed away from leadership roles, staying at the bottom – often moving into labour intensive industries.
HOPE: As a mother of girls yourself, how are you seeing the next generation of girls being raised in Uganda? Are there differences you see in how you experienced education as a young girl, versus your girls’ experiences today?
ROBINAH: Personally, I was given little support as a young girl. In school and in the home, I used to wake up at 4:30am and prepare the house for whoever was staying. Back then, we did not know the extremes of sexual violence since the amount of reported cases was much lower. Also, there were no classes about menstruation and teachers often used to threaten us when we were about to start menstruation. Now there is more awareness and sensitisation towards these issues.
My father threatened against ever getting pregnant under his roof and many other girls faced similar threats. This was tormenting and the wrong approach. Since my mother could not read at all and my father could not read English, they did not have the ability to read about many of these issues. The parent-child relationship is very important in the learning process, yet I was not supported in this way.
Today, girls read a lot about sexual and reproductive health and the parents are sensitised. They are more likely to sit down and talk about how to handle such issues. I could not give my father a hug growing up since it was a taboo, now my husband hugs, encourages and lifts my girls up if they are down.
My father used to cane me if I was not at the top of the class, whereas now I have learned the best ways to support and promote the development of girls to build their confidence with safe spaces to become leaders of tomorrow.Robinah with her husband, Uganda
HOPE: As an educator and leader in a school during your career, were there any ways that you intentionally focused on specifically engaging and inspiring young female learners you worked in? Does a specific story come to mind?
ROBINAH: I try to act as a role model and make sure I always positively motivate all school leaders, teachers, parents and students. I reassure girls that they can do whatever a boy can do. As an Education Specialist and a female leader, I share my own story so that school leaders and girl learners can learn from it. I did not come from a rich family with entitlements, but with the support of my teachers and peers I remained focussed.
As a Head Teacher, I conducted sensitisation sessions with parents where I coached positive speaking and raised the importance of not comparing girls to boys, as is common in Uganda. This breaks a girl’s confidence. I worked most closely with and mentored children in the most difficult situations.
There is one girl especially that I will never forget and with whom I still communicate all the time. She was living with a stepmother and father who did not care about her education. During a time when she was not performing well, her father said to her “if you can’t perform well then you should get married.” I was so grateful that she shared her difficult story with me, since I was able to help her get back on her feet. I told her, “wipe your tears and rise up because you're going to be a powerful lady.” Her name is Elizabeth but I call her ‘Possible’ because all things are going to change for her. Every time I meet her I am so encouraged. Today she is working with the Children's Ministry mentoring so many young people herself. Whenever she gets a new role, she calls me and tells me “I am what I am today because of you” which is so inspiring.
Another thing I do during School Leadership Professional Development workshops is make sure I give leadership roles to women to build their confidence. Girl students and teachers will then look up to these women in these leadership roles. Still today many can only get access to credit through their husbands and see their success as dependent on men. I use every workshop and meeting to empower female leaders and give them the confidence they need.
HOPE: On a macro level, how important do you think access to equitable and inclusive education in improving women and girls’ opportunities and positions in society?
ROBINAH: Access to equitable and inclusive education turns girls lives around. In schools, when girls have inclusive access to all subjects - including science - and they are supported not to drop out, we see the value of this on society as they become doctors, engineers and other leaders. In terms of confidence and leadership, if she is confident enough to stand up and speak to large numbers of people, she can network with people that will change her life. When girls are given the opportunity to enter labour markets, the benefit to society is massive. Many women spend every penny they have looking after other people, so when they have opportunity - economically and socially - they can really help other people in this world. From my experience, when women are given the opportunity to lead, they pay attention to both human wellbeing and productivity.Robinah's Children, Uganda
HOPE: As you work with school leaders engaged in the EduQuality program, have you seen any examples in transformation of perspectives?
ROBINAH: I genuinely believe that if we want anything to change, it must begin in schools. Initially during School Cluster meetings, women were shying away from taking cluster leadership roles. But now we are starting to see things change as our Education Specialists have encouraged women to take on more leadership.
This trickles down to teachers and students. Inspired by female school leaders, if women teachers are demonstrating more confidence in upper classes, then girl children will look up to them as role models. They must see as many women as men in positions of leadership.
HOPE: Opportunity EduFinance takes a sustainable approach of supporting education finance through local financial institutions to increase financial inclusion as well as education access, with synergies between these two transformative aims. Can you expand more on the importance of increasing women’s access to finance - specifically consider women school owners and mothers? Do you see any impact on gender equality in schools related to the financial inclusion of women?
ROBINAH: Unequal access to finance is made worse by poverty levels, as well as unequal access to land, since the bank often requires land ownership. Since men are more likely to be heirs or may already own a business, they are privileged in access. There are many women that want to set up a school and get a loan to build, yet often these loans belong to their husbands, giving them control over spending decisions. There is a real value and role for financial institutions to understand and alleviate these inequalities.
There are social and cultural barriers to confront here too. On the demand side, men may be more aware of accessing finance. Moreover, many women may feel that to remain in a marriage they should allow their husband to control finances. On the supply side, within financial institutions there are beliefs that men are better educated and empowered in markets to invest and repay their loans, giving them favourable treatment.
We need to support girls and train them to be entrepreneurs so that they can run businesses, manage funds and access finance. Women’s mindsets need to shift. If you have the information you need then you have confidence. When female proprietors have the correct financial and business management training and knowledge, they will have the confidence to run their schools successfully.
HOPE: Finally, as we reflect on this International Women’s Day, what approaches do you think international organisations should take to further improve our work to support increased equity and empowerment for women and girls?
ROBINAH: There is a lot that international organisations can do. Most importantly they can understand the setting they work in. If you understand the full context and background, you can support the women you are working with more appropriately. Even within Africa, some things that might be happening to girls in Kenya, for example, might not be happening in Uganda. Women in Kenya do not kneel for men and boys, as they do in Uganda. A girl who has been kneeling all her life might not feel confident in a job interview in the hiring and promoting process. But someone who has really taken time to understand her background can work to change this. As an educator, I work to overcome this history and change practices and ideas in classrooms.
HOPE: Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses and sharing of your personal story. Do you have anything you would like to add?
ROBINAH: I would like to point out that anyone can be productive – not just men. All women need is the opportunity. A woman is somebody who can be an ‘extra miler’ – they can get out of their way if they are supported.
We must also provide opportunities for women to mentor mem. There are lots of special qualities and experiences that women have that men can learn from. Women need not only be role models for the girl child but also other boys and men. We should also shed the stereotypes of what women role models can bring to the table – for example, the stereotypes of ‘sensitivity and kindness.’ A woman can also help a man learn entrepreneurship and business skills.
It is inspiring to see that the winning school of our recent Education Quality Awards has a female proprietor. These awards recognise schools making the greatest quality improvements according to their School Development Plans, showing the incredible attention to quality and outcomes of a female school leader. Fellow male and female proprietors will now look to learn from her leadership.
Robinah is Head Education Specialist for East Africa with the responsibility of supervising the EduQuality program in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.
Robinah joined the EduFinance team in March 2016, playing a key role in establishing the EduQuality programme in Uganda. Prior to joining Opportunity International, Robinah worked as the Headteacher and Academic Supervisor of the Kinderkare Schools, as well as an English teacher at Mengo Senior School – both in Uganda. She has ten years’ experience in the Ugandan education system in both privately owned and government aided institutions of learning. She was selected to represent Uganda in the Professional Development Qualification (International Leaders in Education Program) from the United States Department of State where she worked in a multi-cultural school system in Ohio, exploring global trends and internationally accepted education processes and delivery strategies.
Robinah has a Bachelors of Arts degree in Education from Makerere University and is pursuing an MBA at the Uganda Management Institute. She is also a specialist in Early Childhood Education and has a certificate from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for completing the Women’s World Banking’s Leadership and Diversity for Innovation Program.