On the cover of this year’s Gifts of Hope catalog, 10-year-old Gloria holds a goat her single mother received to help her build the strength and self-reliance she needs to independently support her four daughters. Gloria and her family live in rural Uganda, where graduation rates for boys still exceed that of girls, where girls often marry by age 16 and where women often become the sole source of support for their children. But through Gifts of Hope and child sponsorship, Holt supporters are helping to empower women and girls in this community — making, as some have said, the best investment in the world.
That is a ridiculous question.
This is what Gorret’s face conveys in response to the question just asked of her by the guests in her home — a team of visitors from Holt International, the organization that sponsors her two eldest daughters.
Gorret is a 28-year-old mother of four girls. Angella and Gloria are tall and slender 10-year-olds with thoughtful brown eyes. They are identical twins. Her youngest daughter is a playful 4-year-old who peeks, giggling, from behind a curtain as we talk. Her middle daughter is 7. They are a house full of women, and a house headed by a woman. Four year ago, the girls’ father abandoned his family in a rented room in Kampala — leaving his wife alone to care for her four young children, including a newborn daughter. With no source of income to pay her rent, and no way to support her children, Gorret packed up their few belongings and moved her girls back to her childhood home in the rural Ugandan village of Dwambe.
It is here, in the modest stone house where she grew up, that we ask Gorret about her hopes and dreams for her children.
“Is it important to you to educate your daughters?” we ask.
Gorret speaks very little English so she responds in Luganda. But although we don’t speak the same language, her facial expression communicates clear enough. Her head tilts up in puzzlement. Her brow furrows. “Why not?” she says through our translator. “It’s very important to educate girls — to educate all four of my daughters.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone,” she adds, “who doesn’t want their children to be educated.”
As politely as possible, Gorret has put us in our place. And it is glorious. But five, ten years ago, this question would not have seemed quite so ridiculous. Still today, in some communities of Uganda, not every family would agree that it is as important to educate your daughters as it is to educate your sons. For many families, the decision comes down to not just gender politics, but economics.
“In some cultures, parents are more inclined to send sons to school if they can’t afford school fees for all of them,” explains Lydia Nyesigomwe, Holt’s long-time country representative in Uganda. “But there’s a lot of awareness now about supporting the girl child.”
Gorret scoffing at the notion that her daughters should have fewer opportunities in life than someone else’s sons reflects changing norms in a country where traditional gender roles are still in many ways observed — especially in rural communities like Dwambe.
“In Kampala, you now see men carrying babies around town. But in rural areas, it’s still a cultural taboo to see a man carrying a baby to church. You would not see a man washing a baby either. Other men,” Lydia says, “would laugh at that.”
Ten years ago, Holt began working in the village where Gorret now lives with her four daughters. Sitting about 35 km outside of Kampala, Dwambe is part of a broader region known as Wakiso — a network of small farming villages that in the 1980s and 90s was double hit by both a brutal civil war and the devastation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Here, Holt Uganda worked alongside our local partner Action for Children (AFC) to serve the most vulnerable families in the community — often households headed by grandparents or single mothers like Gorret.
As everywhere we work, we adapted our model of family strengthening and preservation to fit the unique needs of this community. Through small, donor-funded investments like livestock or seeds to grow gardens, we sought to empower families with resources they need to both feed their children and grow their income. We matched children with sponsors whose monthly support would keep children in school and help families make ends meet while they worked toward stability and self-reliance.
But although we tailor services to meet the individual needs of families, our staff in the field also recognized the potential of bringing families together as a whole — families that have endured the same hardships, and that are now working to rebuild their livelihoods, homes and communities. By forming “Action Support Groups (ASGs),” our staff helped to create spaces where families could come together to support and learn from one another.
Through ASGs, our local staff and partners also discovered a unique opportunity to connect in particular with the women of Wakiso.
“Many of these support groups are actually made up of women, very few men,” explains Lydia. “The education we have given them, this has really helped them to get from one level to another. They are able to meet on a weekly basis to talk about issues around their families — how to raise children, issues of nutrition, hygiene and sanitation within their homes. But they also talk about simple business skills — how to make crafts and sell them to raise money, how to save and when they have saved, to start borrowing from their savings to do certain family projects.”
At group meetings, our partner staff also worked to move the tides of social change already occurring, organically, in Kampala. As native Ugandans who are respected and embraced in the communities where they work, our partner staff is able to lead discussions about the importance of educating girls or of men sharing household responsibilities like caring for children. But as with any great movement in a culture or community, change must ultimately come from within.
“In a way, the women have come out and now they are more empowered to the level that you find they are now the secretaries and treasuries of their small groups,” explains Lydia — herself a powerful woman who serves as an excellent role model for the women of the community. Tall and broad-shouldered, with a big, boisterous, laugh that often ends in tears and a penchant for colorful dresses with flouncy skirts that fall below the knee, Lydia strikes a strong impression. She has a master’s degree in social work earned while studying abroad in England, is a mother of nine — including three adopted children and three for whom she is a guardian — and has devoted 13 years of her life to serving the women, children and families in Holt’s programs in Uganda.
“Their confidence has been built,” she says of the women Holt and AFC work with in Wakiso. “They are able to acquire skills in bookkeeping and public speaking and so many other things. And because now they have been exposed to that, it has also opened their eyes to see that girls are more important.”
By becoming empowered themselves, Lydia says, the women of these communities now seek the same for their daughters.
“Before, girls would be left at home to take care of the young babies as their mothers moved around into their garden or to go to market,” she explains. “But now, there is much more awareness for the need for a girl to be educated, the need for a girl to come out, to compete openly with the boys. And that has really worked so well.”
Meeting Gorret — a woman petite in stature but strong in conviction — it’s hard to believe that she ever felt uncertain about the decisions she makes for herself or her daughters. But when her husband left, even she was unsure what to do.
“I felt so bad when my husband left,” she shares. “I had so many children and no money to pay rent. I felt very desperate at that time.”
Without her husband’s income, she knew the burden was now on her to support her children. So when she returned with her girls from Kampala, she immediately looked for work. And she quickly found a job with another children’s services organization working in her community. But unfortunately, not long after she started, her job was terminated and she once again found herself without any means to support her family.
Looking at her daughters sleeping side-by-side on a single mattress — unsure how she would feed them or send them to school — Gorret prayed for help.
At the time, our local partner was identifying families for our family strengthening program in Gorret’s community. Seeing Gorret and her children as good candidates for the program, they enrolled her two eldest daughters, Gloria and Angella, in Holt sponsorship — matching them with sponsors whose monthly support provides everything from books and supplies for school to the uniforms and fees required for them to attend. They received another mattress and more blankets so that the family of five could sleep more comfortably. They received seeds to plant cassava, beans and maize. And Gorret joined an Action Support Group to help build her farming and business skills.
But perhaps the greatest gift of hope Gorret and her children received was a gift that would both grow her income and provide food for her family. As part of Holt’s family strengthening program, Gorret received goats — including one squirmy, caramel-colored kid who Gorret’s daughter Gloria can be seen holding on the cover of this year’s Gifts of Hope catalog. Not only do her goats provide milk for her family, but by selling surplus milk and calves, Gorret now has a very stable source of income.
“I started with goats, but I sold some of them to buy a pig,” she proudly tells us as we walk around the back of her house to the family’s pigpen, where one mama pig stands nursing her piglets.
In the two years since she joined our program, Gorret has grown her income to 20,000 Ugandan shillings, or 6 U.S. dollars, per month — giving her money to buy household items not provided by Holt sponsorship, such as soap, sugar and batteries. Her piglets will sell for about twice her monthly income, while an adult goat will sell for 80,000 shillings — four times what she earns every month from her other income-generating ventures. Collectively, Gorret’s investments provide enough income to meet the needs of all four of her daughters — including the fees for her youngest to attend school alongside their older sisters.
But Gorret realizes that none of this would be possible without the help of Holt sponsors for Gloria and Angella.
“It used to be my prayer that my children would get sponsors,” she tells us. “So when I learned that there were people out there sending money to support my children so they could remain in school, all I could do was kneel and pray a blessing for them so that they would receive very long lives.”
Twins Gloria and Angella look exactly the same. They have the same deep brown eyes, long, slender statures and elfin ears that perfectly frame their faces. In personality, though, the sisters are not as identical as they look. Gloria is outgoing and social while Angella is more introverted. Both are bright girls who love school, but Angella is a grade ahead of Gloria. Angella loves music and sometimes plays soccer with the boys at school. Gloria likes to play on the swings, skip rope and play hide and seek with her friends and siblings.
Although their interests may ultimately lead these two identical twins in different directions, right now, as girls growing up in a rural village in Uganda, they face the same hurdles on their paths in life.
In May 2016, Gloria and Angella turned 10 — a pivotal age in not just their own lives and education but, according to the UN population fund’s recently released state of the world report, to the lives and futures of everyone they know.
“Whether a country’s economy grows, stagnates or collapses in the future depends in no small way on how well it supports its 10-year-old girls today,” writes the study’s authors.
Why 10? Because “at 10, a girl is approaching puberty, when many people start to think of her as an asset—for work, childbearing or sex (Bruce, 2006, 2009). If her rights are not well protected, through appropriate laws, services and investments, the chance to bloom in adolescence and become a fully fledged adult forever slips away.”
Regardless of where she lives in the world, every 10-year-old girl should have the right to adequate nutrition and healthcare, to protection from child labor and gender-based violence, to clean water and sanitation, to a safe home environment and to a quality, equal education.
These are among the rights she should be entitled to for herself — and as an end unto itself. But the potential impact of an empowered girl reaches far beyond the limits of her own life. According to the state of the world report, educating girls may just be the “world’s best investment.”
When girls are educated, they have the capacity to create unprecedented economic and social change in their communities and countries. Girls who are educated have fewer children, and the children they do have are healthier and stronger. An educated mother will have increased job opportunities and higher wages, giving her the resources to buy food and medicine for her children. She will know more about nutrition and hygiene, and will make better use of health clinics. When women are educated, the chance of their children dying before the age of 5 is cut in half.
Educated women are also five times more likely to send their own children to school – increasing literacy rates in their communities, and breaking the cycle of poverty. They have the potential to reduce violence against women, increase both family and national income, and even temper political extremism.
In many countries where Holt works, including Uganda, an educated girl is also more likely to delay marriage until adulthood.
“In some parts of the world, when a girl reaches 10, she is deemed ready for marriage,” the study states. “Every day, an estimated 47,700 girls are married at age 17 or younger in developing countries.”
In Uganda, the age at which families in rural areas will consider marriage for their daughters is closer to 16. But just like many girls in the world, when a girl in Uganda marries, she will likely be taken out of school. And too often, the reason girls marry so young in Uganda is because her parents can’t afford to continue her education through secondary school — causing a significant gap in graduation rates between boys and girls.
“Because so many families can’t afford secondary education, they will accept marriage proposals for their daughters,” Lydia explains. “Most children finish primary school by 15 so by age 16, they are married off.”
Many families in rural Uganda believe their daughters are safer in marriage, Lydia says. But like everywhere in the world, couples who marry as young as 16 often lack the skills and education to support themselves and their children. Without a secondary education, they won’t be able to secure decent jobs — even if they move to the city. And without knowledge about family planning or their reproductive rights, many young women feel pressured to have more children than they can support. In the communities where Holt works in Uganda, Lydia says that young parents who are struggling will sometimes abandon their children or leave them with elderly grandparents. Men, she says, often leave first.
This is a fate that befell Angella and Gloria’s mother, who married at 18 and four years later found herself a single mother without the means to support herself or her children.
But Gorret is determined to see her daughters take a different path in life.
“I want all of my daughters to be doctors or nurses so they may treat all the people in the community who don’t have support,” she says.
Although their sponsorship will end once the girls complete their primary education, by investing and saving the money she earns from her agricultural enterprises, Gorret will one day be able to send Gloria and Angella on to secondary school.
In every way, Gorret is striving to ensure her daughters are able to pursue their dreams and reach their full potential. And in every way — whether through child sponsorship, gifts from Holt’s Gifts of Hope catalog or support for Holt’s family strengthening program in Uganda — Holt sponsors and donors are helping her build strength and self-reliance so that she can one day achieve her goal.
As we prepare to leave, Lydia wraps her arm around Gorret’s shoulders. “Thank you for not abandoning your children,” she says. She asks if the girls’ father ever visits, and Gorret shakes her head no. “Don’t worry. You are a very hard-working woman,” Lydia tells her. “Your children will grow up well.”
Robin Munro | Managing Editor
This holiday season, honor your loved ones by giving Gifts of Hope in their name. Browse Holt’s Gifts of Hope catalog online, or give a gift mentioned in this story!