In his article “What’s So Scary About Smart Girls?” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof claims educating girls is a powerful step in transforming a society and irreversible in women becoming “force multipliers for good.” Kristof makes a compelling case that the power of educating girls in extremist countries is stronger and more effective at bringing stability than producing weapons or strengthening military power.
Catholic Sisters from ASEC’s Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI) and Higher Education for Sisters in Africa (HESA) programs have witnessed first-hand the power of educating and supporting girls in Africa from a young age and are dedicating their lives to advancing the girl child.
SLDI, ASEC’s largest program, provides leadership and technology training for Sisters in Africa. After training in Basic Technology or Web Design and Administration or Finance over a three-year period, graduating Sisters receive a laptop to assist them in their work at home and in mentoring other Sisters.
Many SLDI alumni go on to earn undergraduate and graduate level education through ASEC’s HESA program, which partners Catholic women religious in Africa with higher education institutions in Africa and online in the USA. Upon completion of their degree, HESA alumni return to their communities to serve as congregational and community leaders.
In an area of the world where girls and women face extreme gender discrimination from birth throughout their life, both the SLDI and HESA programs provide opportunity for Catholic Sisters and the African populations they serve. Graduates of the programs are advocating for the rights of girls and young women while meeting the needs of their local communities and emphasizing the importance of education, health and nutrition.
Creating a supportive environment for girls entering religious life in Nigeria
Sr. Florence Emurayeveya, EHJ, a Sister of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, was the second recipient of the Visiting Scholar Fellowship at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).
Since she completed the SLDI program in 2009, she has been an active alumna, including securing funding for and creating the EHJ Postulate House in Ikenne, Nigeria. The House provides holistic formation for young girls coming into the religious life.
Since the facility was completed in 2016, the house has gained 6 employees and ministers to over 300 people in the community and parish.
Empowering girls in Kenya, aiming to reduce physical human rights violations
SLDI alumna Sr. Caroline Kimani, DHM, Societies of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, is using the skills she acquired from SLDI to end the human rights violation of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya by empowering young girls.
FGM refers to all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and is an overt violation of the human rights of girls and women. This fatal procedure strips girls and women of their autonomy, dignity and identity.
While attending an SLDI workshop, Sr. Caroline learned that one leads by empowering others. As a result of this lesson, she aims to empower the girls she serves as Directress of the Marie Adelaide Girls Rescue Center. The Rescue Center provides shelter, food, counseling and educational opportunities for as many as 24 at-risk girls, providing them with opportunity for a brighter future.
Sr. Caroline also hopes that by witnessing empowered women who fight for the rights of others, the girls will be able to say “no” to FGM.
Reducing HIV/AIDS Among Women and Girls in Lesotho
Although Lesotho has a small population of 2.2 million, it has the second highest rate of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in the world. As of 2018, 23.6% of the country’s general population ages 15-49 were living with HIV. Among those individuals living with HIV in Lesotho, an estimated 57.58% are women. Younger women, in particular, are disproportionately affected by HIV.
To reduce HIV’s prevalence among adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) in Lesotho, Sr. Anacletta Nkopele, SLDI Phase IV (2018) Finance track alumna, and her congregation, the Good Shepherd Sisters (GSS), collaborated with many public and private sector partners to implement the Determined, Resilient, Aids-Free, Mentored, Safe (DREAMS) project.
A project of USAID and Catholic Relief Services (CRS), DREAMS aims to reduce the rates of HIV among adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) in countries with especially high HIV rates. To date the project has been implemented in 10 African countries through funding secured by Sr. Anacletta using skills she learned in ASEC's SLDI program. Sr. Anacletta also serves as the DREAMS Project Manager.
The DREAMS project has increased protective factors against HIV by bolstering the social and life skills of AGYW as well as access to HIV/AIDS services. After participation in social asset sessions that taught life and social skills, AGYW demonstrated increased self-esteem, self-efficacy and decision-making skills.
As a result, AGYW are empowered to make responsible choices that promote their safety, autonomy and well-being. A total of 16,690 AGYW were served through social asset sessions, across nine community council areas in Lesotho. AGYW were also served through HIV messaging sessions and community service days which sensitized beneficiaries about HIV/AIDS services, provided select services, and raised awareness about HIV and transmission methods. Nearly 1,800 individuals participated in the community service days.
Educating girls across sub-Saharan Africa
Perhaps most notably, SLDI and HESA participants and alumni are making a difference to young girls across sub-Saharan Africa through education.
Mazenod High School, Maseru, Lesotho
Sr. Augustina Thokoa, SNJU, a 2018 graduate of the SLDI Administration track, is in Lesotho as the Administrator of Mazenod High School in Maseru. Sr. Augustina received her leadership position while she was in the SLDI program and is in her third year leading the school.
In her role, one of the first changes she implemented was in the financial management of the school. Sr. Augustina learned that the school faced significant financial difficulties, especially regarding the boarding facility for the girls. Through a needs assessment she conducted with teachers, parents, the school board and non-teaching staff, she developed a new financial plan, separating the boarding facility finances from the rest of the school. This change has clarified the financial system and helped the school engage in long-term financial planning.
The boarding facility has been improved, including installing a solar power system to reduce electricity consumption and increase available hot water. The improvements have led to an increase of 13 female boarding students.
Enrollment for the entire school increased under her leadership as well. Sr. Augustina developed a computer lab for the school, partnering with a company to obtain 70 computers for student use. The school also now offers a feeding program, which is not available through any other area schools. Teachers and staff receive a free lunch as well and are offered opportunities for networking and professional development. These benefits for students and teachers served to stabilize student and staff retention, which has remained consistent throughout her placement.
Sr. Augustina also understands the needs displayed beyond the school walls. She identified the dangers of being a high school located near the International Airport in a semi-urban area and counteracted these risks by implementing important safety measures for all of her students. She is sure to maintain a structurally-sound security fence around the school, does not allow roaming around campus, and has a police officer patrolling the area to help students cross the busy intersection. She adheres to strict policies and disciplinary actions are taken through an administrative hearing with the student. These proactive solutions have reduced incidents to almost none.
Sr. Augustina credits SLDI with providing her with the skills that enable her to improve the lives of young girls in Lesotho.
“[SLDI] has helped me a great deal because I couldn't stand in front of different stakeholders and you know address them on issues. ASEC give me the courage and stance to say yeah this is what has to be done. For that, I’m grateful.”
Ugandan schools improve school completion rate for girls: In impoverished areas of Uganda, it is difficult for families to afford a quality education for their children, resulting in low enrollment and high drop-out rates, especially in girls’ schools. Although strong efforts have been made to increase educational attainment levels, the national lower secondary (S1-S4) completion rate for girls is only 24.9%. Addressing social issues, such as child marriage, early childbearing and locating schools closer to children’s homes may help girls complete their secondary education.
Asili Girls' Vocational Senior Secondary School, Lira Diocese, Uganda
Sr. Petronilla Kyomugisha, MSMMC, knows that without a quality education, girls don’t learn the skills needed to become transformative members of their community. A missionary sister of Mary Mother of the Church, she’s working to change this reality for the students of Asili Girls’ Vocational Senior Secondary School in Northern Uganda. Here she is providing quality, holistic education to girls including core subjects in addition to art, counseling and even farming classes.
An alumna of both SLDI and HESA, Sr. Petronilla was immediately assigned as head teacher of the school upon graduation from the programs. Since then, she has tripled enrollment while still maintaining a good student to teacher ratio. She was able to achieve this with the skills learned in ASEC’s SLDI and HESA programs. She says,
“I am very grateful to ASEC which empowered me through SLDI and HESA Programs to be able to carry out this noble task amidst many challenges. I owe them credit for all that they did for me and for my Institute.” -Sr. Petronilla
Boni Consilii Secondary Vocational School, Mbarara, Uganda
Another Ugandan school, the Boni Consilii Secondary Vocational School, run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Good Counsel (OLGC) in Mbarara, is also aiming to increase educational opportunities for girls. Boni Consilii serves about 630 girls and like Asili School, has a strong focus on holistic education and development of the whole girl. The students learn core subjects such as science and art, but also learn practical skills such as soap-making, use of natural pesticides, and other life skills. The majority of students complete national lower secondary school level S4.
Sr. Mary Lilian Baitwakakye, OLGC, an alumna of the SLDI project management program, wrote grants to secure funding for the construction of Boni Consilii as it stands today, including classrooms, dormitories, latrines, showers, water tanks, an assembly hall, a dining hall, administration offices and a school laboratory.
The school is run by Headmistress Sr. Lucia Nyamwija, OLGC, a current HESA participant. Some families cannot pay for school, so Sr. Lucia takes extra time to tutor the high-risk girls and keep them in school. She’s also improved the school’s water access by acquiring funding for a water tank and a rainwater collection system.
Bukulula Girls School, Central Uganda
In Central Uganda, Sr. Mary Nalule, MSMMC, is using the bachelor’s degree in education she earned through HESA program to teach young girls at the Bukulula Girls School. She feels that the HESA program has brought her closer to fulfilling her career goals and achieving her dream of becoming a secondary school teacher.
“My passion for education is matched only by my love for the youth, particularly the girl-child,” said Sr. Mary.
Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School in Nairobi, Kenya
In Zambia, Sr. Abigail Mwaka, HBVM, is also pursuing a bachelor's degree in education through ASEC’s HESA program. Following the charism of her congregation, “girl child education and women’s empowerment,” Sr. Abigail has always wanted to teach at a girls’ school.
She did her teaching practice at Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School in Nairobi, Kenya, where she learned to embrace holistic education. Her experience has taught her the importance of creating a strong foundation for the young women who will be tomorrow’s leaders.
“I am very grateful and happy to be part of ASEC Family because I am having a lot of experiences which is helping me to understand myself and the people I will be serving in my life time. I am almost achieving my goals of being a teacher.” -Sr. Abigail
Supporting, educating and empowering the girl child
Catholic Sisters are taking the skills and knowledge gained through ASEC-sponsored programs to bolster the lives of young girls in Africa. The emotional and physical support and education these girls receive are making strides toward gender equality and priming future generations of empowered women.