Episode 027: Empowering Girls in Uganda with Smart Girls Founder & CEO, Jamila Mayanja
Jamila Mayanja is a gender equity champion and the founder of Smart Girls Uganda: a nonprofit that empowers young girls and women with the educational, vocational and practical tools they need to thrive – including access to safe, effective, reusable menstrual pads.
To date, Smart Girls has reached 500,000 girls with their signature menstrual kits (including 10,000 who have consequently stayed in school), 300 women with skills-based trainings and 50 women with career placement opportunities. The organization’s efforts have also had a ripple effect impact on the families and communities of women and girls across Uganda.
In this episode, Jamila talks to us about the inspiration behind Smart Girls; how it evolved from a self-esteem mentorship program to a “360 degree empowerment” system serving thousands of women and girls across Uganda; the menstrual/gender equity challenges it seeks to address; and incredible stories of women who rose from the ashes through the Smart Girls program to become successful “power queens.”
- Why Jamila’s experience with childhood bullying inspired her to create Smart Girls as a safe space for young girls suffering from low self-esteem
- How widespread period poverty keeps Ugandan girls from staying in school
- All about Smart Girls’ three core programs:
- Smart Bags 4 Girls, which helps girls stay in school with reusable menstrual kits and solar-powered study lights
- Girls With Tools, which trains women in traditionally male-dominated skillsets like carpentry, welding and mechanics
- Business Girl Magic, which incubates Girls with Tools graduates and connects them with career opportunities
- How the Smart Bags 4 Girls program is keeping girls in school – while also giving second-chance education and income-generating opportunities to those who never had the opportunity to graduate in their youth
- Stories and numbers that illustrate Smart Girls’ incredible impact
Jamila Mayanja has eight years of experience working with for-profit companies and social ventures. While completing her bachelor’s degree at Makeire University Business School in Kampala, she was hired to join the marketing team of one of the top SMS companies in Uganda. She also volunteered with a number of nonprofits including IRI’s Green Light Movement, and became a member of the Generation Change US Chapter.
In 2012, Jamila started a social venture called Smart Girls Uganda: a nonprofit company that empowers young girls and women through trainings that build self-esteem. In 2017, she innovated The Smart Bags 4 Girls product: a comprehensive menstrual hygiene bag with kits and educational programming designed to help girls in Uganda to stay in school during their menses. Because of her work, she was chosen to be part of the 2015 Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative where President Obama recognized her for curbing youth unemployment. Jamila’s Smart Bags 4 Girls idea has also been selected as a winner of the Openideo UNFPA Young People’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Challenge.
Jessica Williams 0:00
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Welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast, a show about breaking barriers for women and girls around the world. I’m your host, Jessica Williams, Chief Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. At Days for Girls, we believe in a world where periods are never a problem. We are on a mission to shatter the stigma and limitations associated with menstruation by increasing access to sustainable period products and menstrual health education for all people with periods.
Today’s guest is Jamila Mayanja. Jamila is the founder of Smart Girls Uganda, a nonprofit that empowers young girls and women through trainings to build their self esteem. In 2017, she innovated the Smart Bags 4 Girls product, which is a comprehensive menstrual hygiene bag with kits and educational programming designed to help girls in Uganda stay in school during their menses. Because of her work, she was chosen to be part of the 2015 Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative where President Obama recognized her for curbing youth unemployment. Her Smart Bags 4 Girls idea has also been selected as a winner of the Openideo UNFPA Young People’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Challenge. I just loved talking to Jamila. And I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did. Now let’s go on to the show!
You founded an organization called Smart Girls Uganda. So I would love to start out by talking about that organization and what made you found it. What made you give that a go and start start Smart Girls?
Jamila Mayanja 2:18
When I was in primary school, I was among the bigger girls… I’ve always been bigger than my peers. I grew my breasts sooner. I started my periods really young, at nine years old and was a bit bullied in primary school. But when I went to high school, high school was like my safe space. I went to an all-girls school, that was called a business or girls school. And I really liked it. I spread my wings, I grew my self esteem. I felt really like, in a safe space that was different from my primary school. So when I was in high school, I was very social. I was in every club. I also started a club. I was in every cabinet, I was in the [inaudible], like I used it as a platform to build my self esteem, my self confidence to help those who were experiencing bullying. So really, I believe my high school experience, and having found it as a safe place, led to my inspiration to start Smart Girls, Uganda. Because for me, ideally, first when I started it, was to really empower young girls and women to build their self esteem. And this grew into more of our interventions that we’re doing now, but also it led from my personal experience that I faced when I was in high school. So where I was in primary when I was bullied so much, I really wanted to build a safe space where I would help young girls and women. So yeah, that’s how…one goal that came though when I went to university. Um, and I lost my dad in between. So it was really hard for me. I first worked for a company as the marketing manager. But later on, I noticed that wasn’t my calling. I ended up resigning my job in 2012 and set on the idea of starting Smart Girls. So I did Smart Girls. The idea was born in 2012 and was fully registered in 2015. I decided to take a bold move. I left the highly paying job and went on a journey to really empower girls and women from the inspiration that I had from high school. My mother first thought I was crazy, but yeah, now she’s my biggest cheerleader. So yeah.
Jessica Williams 4:48
Wonderful. That’s great. And now I want to unpack that a little bit. So for those of us like myself, who’ve never been to Uganda, what is it like for the majority of young girls there who are primary school age, high school age? Are they also experiencing some of the same things that you experienced?
Jamila Mayanja 5:07
Yes. And what was really sad and why I was really encouraged to start Smart Girls was the fact that, for me, in going through the bullying… going through menstrual bullying and stigma, I was from a privileged family of sorts. We weren’t so poor, but the more I got to find out about the girls that live in Uganda, they were going through even worse situations thanI was. Because I was, my family was more of like a middle class family. But most of the girls here in Uganda, I can imagine only 34% of girls go on to get into secondary school. So I was among the lucky ones who went on and received secondary school. You can imagine, only one in four children in Uganda start primary school and that one child is usually a boy. And these other three girls are not going to secondary school because they’re facing menstrual poverty, they’re facing poverty at home, their parents can’t afford to take them in school, either. They’re among those who have ended up being victims of teenage pregnancies, because here we have over 22% of adolescent girls who are pregnant by the age of 14. So a 14 year old here in Uganda, it’s really hard for her to move on and finished university.
Can you imagine even 60% of new HIV infections in Uganda are by adolescent girls? So…we’re not doing so much in trying to keep girls in school, in trying to prevent them from getting teenage pregnancies, and having them access friendly reproductive health services. It’s really crazy. And something as simple as a reusable pad is keeping them out of school. Something as simple as access to light, to water is keeping them out of school. So the situation here for girls is a bit alarming. And we some of us who have been lucky. That’s why I ended up setting Smart Girls to try and make sure those were been a lucky a little bit, can give, can give back to the girls were not lucky like us. So I want to go deeper into this. So there’s clearly a problem. And women are young girls need help. And so Smart Girls, Uganda, how do you how do you operate in order to serve these young girls and help them get educated and stay in school?
So we when we started first, Smart Girls was mostly doing mentorship and self esteem games…for the girls to believe believe in themselves, that they can actually achieve more than the boys here, they can actually can achieve the same as the boys. So Smart Girls initially started with mentorship programs. So when we kept on doing these programs, we kept on identifying the problems that I’ve talked about earlier. And one of them, one of our biggest programs now is called Smart Bags 4 Girls. And this came about before, through one of the interventions we did that was called the Father Daughter Dance, which we used to do for the mid-upper middle class young ladies to build their self esteem through their fathers. So we did this event to fundraise for reusable pads, while also empowering the young girls through their fathers, the privileged ones. I would say that still needed to build their self esteem. So we used to give out reusable parts that we’d buy from partners. But we still noticed a percentage of some of the girls were still staying out of school, despite us giving them the reusable parts. So I went and I innovated something called a Smart Bag that really facilitates the use of reusable pads, that really gives the girls more convenience in using reasonable pads that have been provided by us or other stakeholders. So this bag comes with a component where the girls can put the unused visible parts, even when they get to school. And if they can’t access water, they don’t have time to wash those pads. They don’t have the room to to hang them. There’s a department in the bag where they can keep that soiled pad so the they can conveniently go back home and view and clean them properly and wash them at their convenience.
So this intervention has helped us really facilitate the girls to stay in school during their their menstruation. And we’ve also innovated it further – now we are making it a plastic recycled bag. Because of the rainy season we noticed these girls, when they’re moving the first prototype we made, it was the contents would get wet when it was the rainy season. So now we are recycling plastic and making it waterproof. And then we also discovered, well, we’re giving out the recycled smart bags. And there’s some girls whose performance was still lagging. And this was because by the time to get back to school, got back home after school, they had to do a lot of housework, they had to do a lot of labor for their household. So by the time they finished the house work, it is really dark. They don’t have access to power to read their books, or to do their homework, to do behind house homework. So we also integrated another Smart Bag that we call the recycled solar smart bag, that has a solar and a detachable detachable light, so when they get back home, they will also be able to read their books, but also still keeping safe during their messes. So that is one of our biggest programs that has helped us in solving menstrual poverty and keeping girls staying in school in their messes.
The beauty about this bag [inaudible] to our other program that we call Girls with Tools, and this we innovated after we noticed so many young teenage mothers who didn’t have – who dropped out of school, didn’t have second chance education. Young ladies who are married to violent husbands, and they’re trying to get out of those violent relationships, but because of lack of income and poverty, they end up staying in those violent relationships. So I started a program called the Girls with Tools, where I trained girls in male-dominated careers. That is carpentry, welding, mechanics, electricity installation, and the other being tailoring. And the girls in tailoring class are the ones now who make the Smart Bags resource for income, for them to be able to make this box after their training, so that they already have income. So the Girls with Tools is more like a skilling academy, to skill the girls in male dominated careers. But also later after the skilling, we graduate them into our Business Girl Magic program, where we help incubate them into startups, so that they can have survival of the skills and and money from them. And those who are not able to start up with their fellow ladies, we leave them to work with our partners, like [inaudible] to get them work. So our main programs are the Smart Bags, where we keep girls in school during their messes. And also the Girls With Tools, where we give second-chance education and training for girls in male-dominated careers, and also the Business Girl Magic, where we inspire and incubate startups for young women. The [inaudible] that we run here at Smart Girls and all of them, we make sure they go through gender equality, they go through sexual reproductive health training, we give them self defense. We connect them to interpersonal employable skills training. Like really we try to embody and try to give the girls a 360 empowerment in all the programs that we do.
Jessica Williams 13:12
That’s so amazing. And you are based in the city? So is it mostly working with the girls there? And in the community where you operate? Are you able to reach people in more rural environments as well?
Jamila Mayanja 13:27
Yeah, we do, with girls from all over the country. Our biggest achievement has been in partnerships that we’ve been able to forge with different [inaudible] and different NGOs from all over the country where we don’t have presence but can actually reach. Because even with the Smart Bags, we’ve reached girls in refugee camps. So we try and make sure as much as we have our head office in Kampala, we have affiliated officers from different parts of the country in rural areas.
Amazing. And how many girls have you been able to impact since you founded the organization?
Oh, wow. Um, with the mentorship alone, we’ve been able to reach more than 500,000 girls with Smart Bags. We have reached more than 10,000 girls with a Smart Bag and they are staying in school. For the Girls with Tools we’ve graduated – because we started this the last in 2017, we’ve been able to grow with 300 girls from Girls with Tools. And we’ve been able to launch 30 businesses and link more than 50 girls out of that 300 to work.
Jessica Williams 14:44
It’s so incredible what you’re doing. Can you tell us about some of the impact that you’re seeing through your work?
Jamila Mayanja 14:49
Oh my god, it’s so humbling. Jessica, I don’t even have to tell you. Exactly what you say, the bag seems very simple. And at first we were innovating it, we underestimated how much it would get us and how much impact we can give to the girls. Because when we are giving these bags, we don’t just go and hand them out. When have several partners, we first will really work with local leaders, religious leaders, the guardians of the girls, we first really set aside to them about the importance of keeping the girl in school. We’ve been going and teaching both the boys and the girls on how to make their own reusable pads. And the importance of them not selling off the bag when the girl needs the bag. So we really include the whole community. And when we go back to really talk to the girls, how it has helped them, it’s humbling how their performance has improved, their attendance in school has improved.
There is a teacher in one of the refugee camps, she said that herself being a teacher, still, her daughter couldn’t afford a pad to get her in school. And this way, this refugee woman was very fortunate actually to be a teacher. But she was very sad that because of being a teacher she couldn’t afford keeping her girl in school. And it was so sad. But when we give her the Smart Bag, this gave her – gave her daughter the inspiration to stay in school. And the lighting was helping them also, beyond the girl themselves, also them as a family. And the girl’s performance had increased because she was in depression because she was being bullied. How can you be a teacher’s child, and you’re always the last in school, in class. So it’s just as simple as that bag and the light. And that simple bag really helped her increase her performance and her attendance in school and build her self esteem. So it’s amazing how this, something as simple as that can actually change someone’s life.
Also, the ladies who are making the bags here, we’re making the bags for the girls, it has increased their income. We’ve gotten those who have absolutely been confident to get out of situations of gender based violence. We have ladies who are now making bags, and they know the way out of sex work and doing violent sex work actually. And because they’re able to be part of such a bigger cause – and they know the bags that we are getting from them and buying from them and giving to the girls is a bigger cause – has led them to also be able to take their kids in school. So I’m very grateful for the multiplier effect we are making around not only keeping the girls in school, but also giving a second chance, education income to those who are already out of school and who dropped out of school. So it gives us goosebumps, I would say.
Jessica Williams 17:47
Yeah, it gives me goosebumps. It’s so incredible. I feel so bad that they’re getting bullied, what? Like who is bullying them and why? I don’t understand.
Jamila Mayanja 18:01
So like, for example, you see the girl that I’ve told you about? So she was bullied. The fact that you have a parent teacher who is teaching us…why are you being lost in school? Yeah? So without the kids, those who were privileged enough, were bullying this girl, because her mother was a teacher. And she couldn’t be able to attend school. But they know what the situation was. And… this is a teacher who was teaching over four classes here. And trying to survive, she was a single mother. So…she had given birth to 12 kids and she was a refugee. So she wasn’t keeping up [inaudible] with the community but also forgetting about her children. And because she didn’t have the means she was fighting to keep food on the table. And it was just really sad. It was just really like a sad situation for the teacher herself. So imagine she’s going back home looking at her daughter with depressed who is still keeping out of school. And she has to go back and teach. So she was also being affected by the fact that her daughter was going through this. And she wasn’t giving her enough attention. So then we’d go to her and talk to them and also taught her on how to make reusable pads and also gave her the smart bag that had the solar power. It really changed the whole mood around the family interviewed. First of all, their confidence because now they appreciated the fact that you could sell your menstrual product in such a simple way and still give back to the other kids that she was teaching. So it really helps so much. The girl [inadubile] you could absolutely see immediately, her mother was also quite changed and the gift back she was giving to the to the kids in that school.
Jessica Williams 19:51
Aww. You know one of the things that you hear a lot – and there’s a lot of research I think to support this – is that when you educate a girl and you empower her, she goes on to educate others, lift up her community, take that education and invest in supporting others around her. Is that what you’re seeing on the ground there with the work that you’re doing?
Jamila Mayanja 20:16
Yes that is absolutely, absolutely true here. For the girls in Girls with Tools, yeah, the young teenage mothers we give a second chance education in skilling, oh my god when they start learning. And because we don’t care, we enroll them even without any education or certification, any background in English. Because we believe that your hands, your skills, what you can do with your hands doesn’t need you to speak English. It doesn’t need you to be able to write mathematics that you can learn on the way. So you see these women being empowered to make sure that they take back their kids to school, you see them empowered to know the importance of going for family planning, why they shouldn’t be able to suffer in silence for gender-based violent relationships, why they need to learn how to say why they need to invest.
Let me just tell you one story. So we had one girl, one woman here. She was 19 years old, and she had four kids. And she was in an absolutely violent family. And she was in a relationship with a boda boda, right, here we call them motorcycle, motorcycle riders. And the gentleman was quite violent, and he was a drunkard. But because she had no education background, she was absolutely dependent on this guy. So when she heard about our Girls with Tools, she comes in and enrolls, and she studies mechanics. So with the enrolling and the learning, we accepted her to come and learn with her kids because she didn’t have anywhere to live. The kids are like, No, you can come and learn and the kids can share the lunch that we’re providing. And she loved the fact that she started feeling sure that she was being able to get this education, and her eight year old girl was there with her and that girl wasn’t in school. So she started asking us for a plan on how she can really start working. And she gets this kid in school. So we started connecting her kids in school. And then later she started learning on how to start her business. Then later she said started asking how can she file for divorce? How can she – she wanted to go for therapy. Like it was such a ripple effect. Now she started her own garage. She has employed five ladies who are here, who are studying here. She earns income and her kids are at school. She’s our biggest advocate here in Kawempe. Like oh my god, like we feel like we unleashed a power queen. Amazing. I don’t know how to describe it, it really is amazing. It’s mind blowing. The woman who came to me very timis, shy, she couldn’t say anything… very angry, very rude. But you could understand where she’s coming from. Now she’s a power queen. She goes to each house and every house – like [inaudible], you shouldn’t be sitting here, you should learn to do something. And I could just go on with this lady, like we unleashed like a warrior, I would say.
Jessica Williams 23:30
Love it. Oh, what a great story! Oh, that’s wonderful. That must make you feel so good to know that you’re making this impact and difference and in the lives of individual women in your community.
Jamila Mayanja 23:47
Yes, yeah, we are like, it’s amazing. It makes me feel better at night. I tell my mother every day, this is why I quit my job. It is worth it. It’s worth it 100 times and more. Because it’s the legacy I dream to leave even 100 years when I’m dead. I love to see families that I have employed, and still say it’s because of that person’s innovation or initiative that got me to appreciate why I need to keep girls in school. Why a teenaged girl shouldn’t get into a forced marriage. Why it’s very important for a woman to have economic independence. Why gender equality in all careers is very important. Like why something as simple as a reusable pad or something that is natural to us. Like…I always tell people here that to have sex is a choice, but it’s not a choice for us to have menstruation period. You can’t tell them stop, do not come this month, I do not have money. You can’t tell them that no, I’m not yet ready, I’m nine years old, I’m five years old. And I don’t want to get you. Periods, you can’t put postpone them, they have to come whether we want it or not. So we have to give priority to make sure pads are readily available everywhere. And we don’t give priority for girls to have access, free access to reusable pads for something they can’t do away with.
Jessica Williams 25:25
Well, I am so impressed and so inspired by you. How can people who want to support the work that you’re doing, how can they support you?
Jamila Mayanja 25:34
So yeah, they can come to our website, our contact numbers are there, they can either support or donate a bag. Because what we’ve been doing right now with whatever bag either someone buys or donates, we make another that we give out for free. So they can contact us through our website, or social media pages, if they want to support any girl, or buy a Smart Bag for a girl. Or even sponsor a girl to be part of our program for the Girls with Tools, because when we do Girls with Tools, we enroll some some ladies – those who can afford the courses – and each girl who pays to be part of the course we also enroll another one who can’t afford the course for free. So when we get grants for those who are absolutely funding the program, for a number of girls, it also like is fine for us. So in whatever way anybody can donate, we take it up, and they can contact us through our website or our social media pages.
Jessica Williams 26:37
Amazing. And we will put those links in the show notes for anyone who’s interested, too. Jamila, thank you so much for your time. You’ve been a wonderful guest and we wish you the best of luck with Smart Girls, Uganda and hope that you will reach out if you need anything.
Jamila Mayanja 26:52
Oh yeah, this was really fun. Jessica, I love, love, loved to share. I was very surprised and honored to be invited to be on your podcast. I’m very grateful. Very grateful. And thank you.
Jessica Williams 27:05
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