Pandemics Can’t Stop GUIU From Empowering Women Across the Globe to Become Agents of Change

Special thanks to Dr. Cynthia Edwards and Jenna Curia of Meredith College for making this opportunity possible and embracing the work of GUIU.

Students at Meredith College, North Carolina, USA.

To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has made academic engagement more difficult is like saying that a missing right arm is only a flesh wound. Still, students from Dr. Cynthia Edwards’ Psychology of the Pandemic class at Meredith College, in the United States, crowded around their Zoom screens to watch Hajara Namuyimbwa, a Program Officer at Girl Up Initiative Uganda, discuss how young women can become pivotal agents of change.

“Listening to Hajara talk about what Girl Up Uganda does, for kids especially, was really empowering to me,” said Jessica, a Meredith sophomore in the course, “it really spoke to me as a child development major. If Girl Up is doing it over there, I could help girls here through stuff like that too.”

Ms. Namuyimbwa emphasized the diversity of her home country, and discussed how Uganda’s broad spectrum of religious, cultural, and ethnic groups plays into Girl Up’s strategies for empowering young women. “We really value it so much,” said Namuyimbwa, “the variety of culture and religions and all their different beliefs… [but] sometimes those practices have a health impact on women and girls. But people still just say, ‘but this is our culture.’ So we have to have advocacy within the groups themselves to change that mindset.” Her emphasis on talking with instead of talking over was a common theme in her hour long lecture.

“It really helped me understand that it’s not about what I can do by myself,” reflected Paige, a Social Work major hoping for a career in public health after her impending graduation, “…it’s about bringing people together to see what we can do as a group. That’s what makes change really happen.”

Indeed, real and lasting changes that empower women and create a safer, healthier world for all people have felt out of reach for Meredith students and their peers, disillusioned as they have been by COVID-19. In the midst of this fog of listlessness brought on by the pandemic, Ms. Namuyimbwa’s talk reminded us that the isolation we are all feeling is temporary, but community is permanent, and permanent change is still worth fighting for.

“It happens little by little,” she says, “we educate a lot of girls, and the reality is…not all of [those] girls will make it to university, but that does not mean we have taught them nothing… They learn confidence, they learn about their bodies, they learn life skills, and economic independence. …everything we can do for youth is worth something as they grow.”

From youth education initiatives and podcasts to emergency food distribution, Girl Up Initiative Uganda has been working hard to adapt to the new challenges brought on by the COVID-19 Pandemic. “I was stuck alone in my apartment and I was worrying about my mother, I was worrying about my sister who works on the other end of town, and we were all trapped there, we couldn’t see one another. But everyone else is trapped too.” Namuyimbwa then discussed how she pulled out of her panic state through the simple act of reaching out to others in the same position through her work.

This sentiment was echoed by Meredith listeners as well. “It really helped me to hear her,” said Fiadh, an international freshman who has been unable to see her family since lockdown began last March, “I think when there’s a hard time it’s super easy to get focused on like, me me me. But there’s a bigger world out there and [GirlUp is] doing stuff in it. I think when you’re thinking about other people, it’s harder to make yourself miserable.”

As we come closer and closer to a time when people can safely resume contact, Ms. Namuyimbwa’s talk serves as a critical reminder that we should not simply forget the pain of isolation and powerlessness. Instead, we should become agents of change, using the harsh lessons COVID-19 has taught to us to strive for a world where interconnectedness, empowerment, and compassion are not simply the norm, but the sacred values that bring together a kinder, stronger world.

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Empower a woman, empower a community. Empower a community, empower a nation. Empower a nation, empower the world." - Unknown.
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