A father residing in our work area in rural Uganda recently commented to One School at a Time Program Manager, Hussein Tadesse, “A cow is better than a girl.” It’s obvious to him — a cow is more valuable than a daughter since the cow produces milk and baby cows. Girls need food, clothing, education and medical care, all things that cost scarce money in this subsistence community. As far as this man was concerned, a daughter is for marriage and for producing children, neither of which require education.
Fathers make the decisions in these households. In 15-year-old Nurru’s case (a 5th grader at One School at a Time partner school #4), her father resolved after she entered puberty that it was time for him to find her a husband and stop going to school. It was as simple as that. After all, the $6 per-term cost for school was oppressive. By selling Nurru for a “bride price,” he could buy a cow, a valuable asset. Nurru told Hussein, “I want to go to school!” Crying, she begged Hussein to take her to Kampala where she offered to work as his house maid.
We continue to hope that students like Nurru can stay in school, but the dilemma is clear: Fathers can invest for the long term by educating their daughters, an investment which requires them to wait many years to reap the economic benefits if their daughters enter the work force. Or they can avoid the costs of educating these girls and marry them off for immediate cash payout. To many of these men, the choice is clear.
Teachers at our six Ugandan partner schools lament that fathers rarely come to school meetings. Typically, the attendees are 80 percent mothers. Comments from teachers at parent meetings, such as, “Why did you produce these children if you cannot care for them?” sadly don’t alter behavior or create understanding. Instead, these verbal jabs serve to blame and shame the parents, causing them to quietly rebel. Hussein, using his non-violent communication training, is working closely with teachers to change accusatory language to a language of shared understanding, so that relationships can grow between teachers and parents. And by working with girls and boys together, Hussein is training the next generation of men to be more sensitive to girls’ issues—and to consider women as equal partners.
Recently, Hussein held a workshop for the children at one of our partner schools to investigate the reasons girls drop out of school. Girls and boys were gathered in small groups to brainstorm, and a leader was chosen to present. The main challenges identified by the girls were: unwanted pregnancy, no secure way to manage menstruation, a heavy domestic work load, and violence by teachers at the schools – including rape. When it was time for the boys to share, they listed karaoke as the major problem. They said that when girls danced with boys, boys
were emboldened to give the girls gifts. The gifts then led to sexual relations and sometimes rape, the boys said. This led to a heated discussion about the intention of gifts and whether or not to accept a gift and on what condition.
Another time, Hussein shared with children about AFRIpads, a re-useable sanitary pad, distributed to all the older girls at the six partner schools. A boy stood up and exclaimed, “Why is he talking about this? This is stupid!” But now, male teachers openly request AFRIpads for their wives and are even willing to be photographed holding them (see below)! By breaking the Ugandan cultural norm that males don’t talk about menstruation, these men are modeling a strong shift in attitude that boys will hopefully absorb over time. And by creating a safe forum for Ugandan boys and girls to engage in honest conversations about the reality of their lives, we hope that boys will grow up to value their own daughters more than a cow and be willing to invest in their futures.