Moving the Needle

Realizing Girls’ Rights through Holistic, Community-Driven Programming

How can we leverage the inherent power of girls and young women when existing in and navigating patriarchal structures? In commemorating International Day of the Girl under the global theme “Our time is now—our rights, our future”, grassroots movement leader, Monica Nyiraguhabwa, dives into the work that her organization, Girl Up Initiative Uganda, is doing to put women and girls at the forefront of Uganda’s Covid-19 recovery agenda.

During this discussion, Monica will shed light on the importance of holistic programming to support the collective and individual health, well-being, education, and economic empowerment of girls and young women, and how Girl Up Initiative Uganda’s youth-driven approach is creating a ripple effect of gendered transformation throughout Uganda.

Presentation Date: October 14th, 2022



Monica Nyiraguhabwa
Founder and Executive Director, Girl Up Initiative Uganda

From a young age, Monica recognized the expectations placed on her as a young girl were vastly different from those placed on her male peers. Growing up she realized quality education could be a way to break the cycle of systemic poverty & negative, gendered health outcomes present in her community. This belief, & the drive to reduce educational & reproductive health barriers for other girls in her community, led her to found Girl Up Initiative Uganda in 2012.

Monica has over ten years of experience in the areas of girls’ education, reproductive rights, funding equity, community engagement, & social empowerment. She holds an MA in Education, Gender, & International Development from the University College of London & a BA in Adult and Community Education from Makerere University. She is an Obama Africa Leader Fellow, Perennial Fellow, Cordes Fellow, & African Visionary Fellow.


How do you handle issues of HIV and other venereal diseases?

Comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education must include safe-sex practices focused on self-protection as well as the health of potential sexual partner(s). By giving young people scientifically sound and accurate information, we are combatting the transmission of HIV and other STIs. Through our Ni-Yetu Youth Program, in partnership with Plan International Uganda, we engage young Peer Educators to do community outreach campaigns to share vital information with other young people in their communities. We have found that young people are more likely to listen to their peers, especially surrounding sensitive, and often taboo, topics like youth sex. These Peer Educators focus on sexual autonomy and self-accountability in knowing one’s HIV status through testing. We also work on university campuses through Campus Ambassadors, who act as key focal points for college-going students hoping to take control of their sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Here, we hold mass information-sharing campaigns on campuses.

To increase the likelihood of testing, we hold Community Health Drives and Campus Health Drives, where we mobilize local health centers to do free, stigma-free HIV and STI testing. Another massive challenge in Uganda is the stigma faced by young people when they attempt to access sexual health services in clinics. To combat this, we work closely with healthcare workers, local officials, and the Ministry of Health to ensure that young people are free to access quality, respect-centered services. 

What are some strategies you have used to engage education authorities?

In Uganda, as well as many other countries with a restrictive social-political environment, you will not be successful in your attempts to engage community members and achieve systems change without including local authorities and relevant line ministries. Before doing any community outreach, we ensure that local officials are aware of our work and give the green light to our activities. Over the years, this has led to strong relationships with local officials and authorities who are supportive of our work and feel as though we see them as important champions of our movement. Going around this red tape and bureaucracy can lead to resentment, or in some cases the end of organizations, as there is a shrinking civic space in Uganda. 

When we were in the planning stages of expansion East, we first met with local education authorities and told them about our work, the results of our in-school programs over the years, and how these programs will strengthen the capacity of schools and teachers as a whole. Since then, they have been our greatest supporters and play an active role in monitoring the success of programs compared to other schools in their district purview. They even suggested that we integrate the programs into the schools’ core curricula as a necessary component before graduation!

Are there any resources/help for girls who might want to stay in school while pregnant? Maybe progressive schools would accept and support them?

Given the rise in teenage and child pregnancies during COVID-19, the government of Uganda updated its school re-entry policies with the hope of encouraging more young mothers and pregnant girls to continue their education. Unfortunately, this policy does very little to actualize its commitment to reintegrating young mothers back into the classroom. This policy focuses on morality-based, anti-girl punishments for becoming pregnant, and forces young mothers to take a mandatory leave of absence before and after giving birth, as they are seen as ‘bad examples’ to other young girls.

A huge barrier to girls’ reentry is the social stigma attached to early pregnancy and motherhood, so combating this stigma is critical to advancing girls’ rights to non-discriminatory education. Another barrier is the increased financial implication of caring for another life, as well as the belief that girls, once given birth, have entered into full adulthood and are, therefore, pigeonholed into domestic roles and expectations. Girl Up Initiative Uganda’s intervention surrounding early pregnancy is two-fold—addressing the social stigma and engrained beliefs as well as eliminating financial roadblocks through school scholarships. 

For example, in one of our schools in our Eastern Program Area—where rates of teenage pregnancy are extremely high— we have provided over 50 young mothers with school scholarships. Additionally, through working with teachers and school administrators, we helped establish a small baby care center at the school so mothers can bring their babies, breastfeed, and still attain their education. Alongside this, there is a need to increase access to informal educational opportunities.