Above: Girls participating in Eminyeeto, a young women’s empowerment program in Ruhiira.
Dr. Yanis Ben Amor, Director of HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis Initiative at the Millennium Villages Project, and Michael Healy, a medical student in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University conducted an ethnographic assessment in 2010 to collect data regarding the practice of cross-generational sex (CGS) in Ruhiira, Uganda. The team surveyed a randomized sample of young women who were 18 years old and asked them to think back to their childhood and answer whether or not they or a peer had sex with an older man. They discovered that 70 to 80 percent of girls and young women in the Ruhiira responded that they or someone they knew did engage in CGS. CGS is characterized as transactional sex whereby young girls have sex with older adult men in exchange for gifts, such as school fees and mobile phones. The practice negatively impacts school-aged girls, particularly by increasing their risk of HIV/AIDS infection and reducing their self-esteem.
The social and emotional learning (SEL) initiative was started in response to the assessment and aims to provide a supportive, school-based space for adolescent girls to address the psychosocial impact of CGS. It encourages students to develop core competencies in self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills. SEL, combined with sexual/reproductive health services and income generating activities, demonstrates a holistic commitment to addressing the health, economic, and educational needs of girls and young women in and outside of the school system.
My experiences as a special educator and social worker exposed me to the value of SEL, which has beensuccessfully implemented in several schools in the United States. These schools recognized that students’ psychosocial needs must be addressed in order to support educational goals. SEL has been used in the United States to lessen the incidence of bullying, violence, and truancy, among other issues.
When I arrived at the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) in Ruhiira, my role was to adapt field notes in order to create a culturally competent teaching manual. The Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility also provided me with guidelines and examples of lesson plans that I could adapt to the Ruhiira setting using feedback from stakeholders at the site. I believe that we have compiled a strong document that acknowledges universal themes regarding the challenges and beauty of growing up.
In mid-March, I had the opportunity to train teachers in Ruhiira on the curriculum. The teachers who participated in the training were women who demonstrate a strong commitment to their students by running an adolescent girls’ after-school program in their respective schools.
After implementing our training, I felt inspired and motivated to continue revising and improving the teachers’ manual in collaboration with local experts to fit the needs of the community. We solicited feedback from the teachers and much of response was overwhelmingly positive.
One comment, however, stood out to me. A teacher asked why we did not invite senior male teachers as the lessons can also be used in boys’ groups or in co-ed settings. I did not have a clear answer to her question other than that I assumed we would only be training the teachers affiliated with our program, because that is my only connection to the community. Upon reflection, I wondered whether we can really claim to be empowering girls and young women when we are putting a disproportionate amount of responsibility on women teachers to deliver the basic tenants of SEL.
I propose that the next step be that we mobilize boys and men to play a larger role in our program to serve as allies in empowering girls and young women. In order for the SEL curriculum to be a strong and sustainable community-based support system, women teachers cannot be the primary adults responsible for and aware of this intervention. Further training should also be done regarding how teachers can appropriately refer students to other community leaders, such as health workers and religious leaders.
Although the SEL curriculum was initially rolled out to provide psychosocial support for those vulnerable to CGS, the exercises can be seen as opportunities to ask students about what matters are significant to them, and should therefore be adapted and reorganized on a regular basis to include new improvements. The SEL curriculum serves teachers as more of a resource than a doctrine that can help bring out the best in educators, students, and community members.
SEL has significant implications for MVP. If a pilot initiative is successful in Ruhiira, other sites where CGS is prevalent may also benefit from enhanced school-based supports. The health team is currently in the process measuring SEL’s impact on Ruhiira by measuring indicators of confidence, leadership, and responsible decision-making on students and their non-school attending counterparts. This research can benefit not only participants in Ruhiira, but girls and young women beyond.