The S.O.U.L Foundation (Supporting Opportunities for Ugandans to Learn) is a not-for-profit organization with the overall goal of creating vibrant, self-sustaining communities by overcoming inherent obstacles (gender inequality) to education and economic growth for the people of Uganda. We accomplish this by facilitating self-sustainable solutions through educational and economic partnerships.
Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.” (Kofi Anan)
My name is Brooke Stern and I am 25 years old. I have been living in Uganda for the last 15 months and recently returned to NY for 8 weeks to tell my story. The face of poverty in Uganda are the faces of the rural women I work with every day. They are trapped in a cycle of misery that never seems to end. While progress is being made, the majority are still uneducated, illiterate and work all day, just to survive in order to make it to the next. They are victims of childhood pregnancy, early marriages, domestic violence and exploitation. They may marry as young as 13 and have a 1 in 22 chance of dying in childbirth. One in 6 of her children will die by the age of 5. Their daughters are destined to be trapped in the same cycle of misery. Their deprivation is deeply rooted, and deeply painful to observe. The women are sustenance farmers and earn an average wage of $1/day feeding families of six to eight. This same dollar has to help pay for school uniforms, books and lunch, as well as all other basic needs. However, in spite of the existential challenges, the parents and children are full of optimism, courage and an overwhelming desire to learn. The women understand that education is their weapon against poverty and intolerance. They want their children to go to school understanding that education is a pathway to a better tomorrow.
The faces of poverty in Uganda are the faces of the women I work with every day. Eradicating poverty is a bold objective, and will be unsuccessful if gender inequality persists and pervades. In 2009, I had a bird’s eye view of this reality. After graduating from college with a nursing degree, my father and I visited Uganda. We volunteered in a remote village about 2 hrs from Kampala. At first, we fell in love with the boys. We were the new mzungus (westerners) in town; celebrities to the kids. Tattered clothes, barefoot, dirty; but smiles so bright it melted our hearts. However, it was speaking to the young girls and mothers that changed my life forever.
When speaking to the women I could feel their deep sadness. The women in particular felt trapped by their inability to pay the school fees for their children. Mama Jolie, who became part of my Ugandan family, explained the situation to me. “We live each day just to survive. We are the breadwinners, the caregivers, we are overworked and without education. We lack control over money even when we make it. We work only to live another day. Our first concern is always if our family will eat tonight. We have good ideas of how to make money; we just don’t have options.”
I walked miles with Mama Jolie to tend to her garden where she picked only the vegetables her family of 8 would eat for the day and a few extra ones to sell at a local market. We sat at a local market for hours with the hope of making 50 cents. On our walk home she went on to explain that although primary education is “supposedly free”, uniforms, lunch and supplies are not. The boys are picked first to go to school. The women of the village believe life will not be significantly different for their daughters, so their education is more readily sacrificed. The girls must participate in the painstaking tasks of survival. They are unable to attend school regularly because they must fetch water, watch younger siblings or collect timber( for cooking) for the one meal they may eat that day.
I was shocked to find out that in Sub-Saharan Africa an estimated 40 billion hours a year is spent fetching water and 272 million school days are missed because of collecting water or water related diseases. The cost in dollars, health, labor, quality of life, and productivity mortified me. All I could think about was the untapped human potential and the ultimate human suffering because of the lack of a “liquid asset” we take for granted in America. Obviously, access to clean water and sanitation plays a monumental role in the pernicious cycle of poverty, but I never realized how connected it is to limited educational and economic opportunities for girls and women. I started to write a list of what I perceived were the barriers to progress, understanding that singlehandedly I could not solve the big problems today, but I had a few ideas I thought I could build on. It became very apparent to me that gender equality sits at the heart of reducing poverty, enhancing development and providing men, women and children a better life.
I returned to Uganda a few months later with the belief that the women and girls of Uganda are the key to their communities’ long-term success.