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  • Julianne Will

On Being a Girl in Uganda

I remember hair products and lip gloss being a pretty big deal when I was about 13.

Hair products and lip gloss were pretty big deals when my daughter and her friends were about 13 too.

Oh, the luxury of being a middle class teenage girl in the United States.

There are certain universalities to this age.

Not having a uniform when everyone else at school does stings. Being left out of a secret or being teased because you have cheap shoes hurts. Girls around the globe want to feel loved and accepted.

There are other universalities. Too many children all over the world struggle to eat each day. Millions don't have a bed. Survival overrides the desire for glitter eyeliner.

These things happen in the United States, too.

But there are certain cultural differences in Uganda that bring a unique urgency to girl empowerment and International Women's Day.

Children--particularly the most vulnerable children--are not valued here in the same way they are in the States.

Decades of war mean that many children in the north were born of rape. It also means that fathers are in short supply. That two generations don't have a norm of stability. They've been raised with a survival mentality.

Throughout the country, AIDS, malaria and malnutrition mean parents disappear, die young. Children are raised by a single parent, by aunties or grandies. And stepchildren here might as well be Cinderella without the ball and the happy ending.

Domestic abuse is prevalent. Women are often assessed as an assembly of physical parts or an object for a man's pleasure. A girl might be groped by the driver on the way to school.

Children don't make eye contact. It's a sign of respect, of knowing their place here. Women in particular.

And education is a luxury. When you don't have anything to eat, how do you pay for pencils and paper? Government school is not free; there is a long list of fees and requirements. If you don't meet them, you're often turned away.

The FODU girl empowerment trips do something to address some of these fundamental differences.

Yes, we're delivering reusable cloth sanitary pads, plus soap and buckets for washing them and little plastic bags in which to discreetly carry home the used ones. But it's the way in which we deliver them that creates powerful change.

When we arrive at a school, it's a celebration. The students perform special songs and dances. The dignitaries attend. There are speeches and special lunches.

And after that, the boys and younger children are dismissed. It's clear that something special is about to happen, and that it's for the young women of the school.

We begin with a Woman of Substance program. As you can see from the card, "substance" is also an acronym for ideas that create great women. Each young woman gets to take one of these cards home.

We also use a short interactive presentation to encourage thoughts of dreams, loves and promises.

Next, we pass out simple books that explain the menstrual process and the anatomy of a girl's body. We walk through the what's and how's and why's of the physical process and how to manage it with the kit. We follow with a pledge to be a Woman of Substance.

Then, we distribute the kit. But it's not just handed out. It's a full-blown ceremony. The girls first are presented with a rubber bracelet stamped with Woman of Substance. They're next given a string bag imprinted with Fields of Dreams Uganda. They move down the line in a procession, with a different member of FODU or the visiting team from America giving them an item: a hanger with clips from which they can hang their pads to dry; a bucket in which to wash their pads; three pairs of new underwear; a package of pads; and a year's worth of soap bars that they can use to wash the pads. We include a few words of encouragement at each step.

After the girls come through the line, the teachers follow, because they face the same challenge. Even the male teachers join the procession, so they can bring the kit home to their wives.

And the little ones often look on with some mixture of excitement, curiosity and envy. It's not often that anyone there gets gifts.

Perhaps best of all, a large part of the presentation is delivered by men: Mike and Jonathan speak to the group. The male staff and volunteers take their place in the lineup.

Imagine if ten people flew from France to have that girl talk with you, and the whole school shut down to honor the celebration, and the senior men of the visiting organization told you that you were strong, unique, beautiful, trustworthy and authentic.

In fact, why don't we do that in the United States?

It felt appropriate to so honor the women of El Bethel Junior School today on International Women's Day.

The female--yes, female--leader of El Bethel School spoke highly of the young women who have graduated from the school and the FODU program. She invited them back from secondary school for the day's celebration:

"Their future belongs to them," she said.

"They have dreamed very well, and they believe in themselves."

The pastor followed with words from the song the children sang earlier, speaking of the girls sitting on the concrete slab: "We are the future of our nation. We are the stars of the world," he encouraged them.

Mike delivered a similar message in his Women of Substance presentation to the girls today. "Women in leadership promote peace and compassion," Mike said. He cited the popular saying: If you educate a boy, you've educated a child. If you educate a girl, you've lifted up a nation.

It was a beautiful thing, to be in Uganda for International Women's Day. It means much here, and there's a growing appreciation for strong women. By many, they are seen as beautiful rather than a threat to men.

With our pervasive wealth in the US (and by world standards, something like 99 percent of us would be considered wealthy) most teenagers there aren't worried about what to do at that time of the month, whether they'll be able to attend school that week or fall behind; whether they will suddenly be viewed as marriage material because they've reached that age.

FODU is giving that same opportunity to the young women here, so that instead they might have the capacity and freedom to think about other things. Some of those things might even include hair products or lip gloss, if they can go on to secondary school and perhaps even university.

But certainly, from speaking with the bright future Women of Substance in Uganda, those things will also include ways to compassionately, uniquely, beautifully and authentically one day lift up their country and the world.

Happy International Women's Day to my fellow Women of Substance.

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