Uganda’s First Urban Social Protection Program Empowers Adolescent Girls in Kampala

UNICEF/UNI587241/Mugisha

Summary:

  • Launched in 2019 by the government, KCCA, and UNICEF, GEG supports adolescent girls with mentorship, services, and cash transfers. Once homeless and addicted, Esther now confidently manages her finances, pursues vocational training, and provides for her daughter.

KAMPALA, (Examiner) — “We all marvel at the new Esther,” says Belinda, a mentor in Uganda’s pioneering GirlsEmpoweringGirls (GEG) social protection program. “She is confident, interacts well with others, and voices her thoughts on various issues, demonstrating a responsibility beyond her years!”

This transformation is remarkable given Esther Wema’s past. At 15, pregnant and homeless, she struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol. During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, school closures and an abusive home led Esther to the streets of Kampala, where she lived in one of the city’s largest slums, Katanga. She gave birth to her daughter, Amira Jemima, amid ongoing abuse and joblessness.

Esther’s turning point came when she met Belinda, a mentor with GEG. Launched in 2019 by the Ugandan government, Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), and UNICEF, with funding from the European Union and the Government of Belgium, GEG supports adolescent girls in Kampala. The program focuses on helping girls transition safely into adulthood through peer-to-peer mentorship, referrals to services, and cash transfers.

Belinda recalls first meeting Esther: “She was drunk, barely dressed, and it was clear she hadn’t eaten in days.” Esther was quickly enrolled in GEG’s out-of-school component, recommended by local leaders who identified vulnerable girls like her.

Under GEG, girls receive personalized mentorship. Despite initial reluctance, Esther gradually embraced weekly one-on-one talks with Belinda and eventually participated in group mentorship and skilling sessions. “I had zero self-confidence,” Esther admits, “I thought everyone looked down on me for being pregnant so young.”

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One year into the program, Esther has learned financial management, budgeting her monthly cash transfer of UGX 40,000 (approx. US$10) for essentials and savings. She is also training in hairdressing and cosmetology, aiming to open her own salon. Esther no longer uses alcohol or drugs and has started selling apples, making up to UGX 25,000 (approx. US$6) daily.

Esther’s transformation is evident in her interactions and responsibilities. “She is confident, interacts well with others, and can voice her thoughts on various issues,” Belinda says proudly.

Esther Wema, 16, a teenage mother, enjoys a light moment with her two-year-old daughter Amira Jemima outside her rented one-room house in Katanga Kampala, Uganda.

Despite her challenging environment, Esther remains optimistic. After a long day of hawking apples, she returns to her rented room in Katanga, determined to provide a better future for herself and her daughter. “One day I will leave this place and find a safer home for my baby and me,” she says with a smile.

Esther’s journey reflects the impact of GEG, which has supported over 3,000 girls, including those with disabilities, urban refugees, and teenage mothers. The program not only changes individual lives but also aims to transform communities, ensuring a brighter future for the next generation of Ugandan girls.

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