UBC Student Enlists Ugandan Girls in Education Research

UBC graduate student Shelly Jones lends a helping hand - photo by Martin Dee
UBC graduate student Shelly Jones lends a helping hand – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 12 | Dec. 1, 2005

By Lorraine Chan

Armed with two laptop computers, a digital camera and compassion, UBC education student Shelley Jones helped Ugandan girls voice their ideas on literacy, gender and education.

For a year, Jones lived in a small village without electricity or running water in the Masaka District, a rural area in south central Uganda.

Jones taught class and enlisted the help of 16-19-year-old girls at the high school. Using music, drama, video and artwork, she and the students explored such issues as barriers to paid work for women and the girls’ expectations about love and marriage.

“The girls were my co-researchers,” says Jones. “The important thing to me is giving these girls a voice, which has been missing from research work in developing countries. They helped me to understand the culture and context of life for women and girls in a rural Ugandan environment.”

Jones adds, “Typically, NGOs parachute into developing countries and there’s little or no sense of what the women experience in their daily lives, despite their key roles as caregivers, farmers and small business owners.”

One of the realities girls and women face is that polygamy is still common in Uganda. Within large families, boys are seen as future breadwinners and are given priority for spending scarce education dollars. However, the girls also realize schooling is the only way out of the backbreaking toil their mothers endure.

“They know education is the most important thing in their lives,” says Jones. “Some of them walk two to three hours to attend school.”

Jones and the students researched how different modes of literacy — from text to visual communication — can aid education for girls in developing nations. They created a music video and documented Ugandan life through photographs. To operate her digital camera and laptops, Jones relied on the solar panels of the village library and the car battery she purchased as a power source.

One of their most successful photography projects involved a field trip to the nearby town Masaka, where the chief of police gave the group an impromptu tour and interview.

“That visit broke all sorts of barriers for the girls,” says Jones. “It would never occur to them that they could enter the police station, let alone get encouragement from the chief of police to become officers.”

Jones says most of the girls live in desperate poverty. Their families depend on subsistence-level farming supplemented by occasional labouring jobs for the men and sales of garden produce or crafts by the women.

“I was speechless at how little they had,” she says. “They had no money to buy kerosene so after sunset there was no light to do their homework.”

Jones says that while elementary education is free, Ugandan students have to pay school fees once they get to the equivalent of grade 8. These fees can amount to about $80 US per year, whereas a typical family in the area may earn $1 US per day or less.

Some girls were desperate enough to sell their bodies to get an education.

“I was really surprised they admitted it,” says Jones, who conducted a confidential survey among 13 girls.

“Over 40 per cent said they would consider prostitution in order to raise school fees,” says Jones.

And of the girls who completed the questionnaire, 100 per cent admitted they knew of girls who had engaged in sex with their teachers. Jones says this is a recognized and widespread problem in Uganda. Girls slept with teachers out of fear that they could be punished for refusing, or in hope they could earn tuition money.

Jones returned to Vancouver this August, but remains close to the students and villagers.

“I don’t go a week without a phone call to find out how they’re all doing,” says Jones.

“I’m committed to those girls. They’re at a critical juncture; 17, 18, 19-years-old is when they’ll be making lots of decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives.”

Jones has been paying out of her own pocket the school fees for several girls. She has also has launched a Ugandan girls’ education fundraising campaign through YouLead, a development and youth global citizenship organization at UBC. Their campaign will kick off with a Dec. 15 fundraiser event. To be held at UBC International House, the 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. event will feature African music, drummers, a silent auction and door prizes.

As well, YouLead is working with a Ugandan village to build a facility by next spring that will house visiting researchers and community projects such as the one underway to foster women and small business ownership.

Jones’ study has won funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the International Development Research Council (IDRC).

For details about YouLead and the December 15 YouLead fundraiser, visit: http://www.youlead.org.

For more information about Jones’ research: http://www.interchange.ubc.ca/skjones.