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Successful women against the odds

Building on findings from the pilot studies about the importance of key people in girls' lives, interviews were conducted with 18 adult women in Uganda in April 2010, and 20 women in Kenya in October 2010. These were women who had completed their schooling and most had gone on to tertiary education and were currently engaged in a range of careers.

Findings from the Women Role Models study in Uganda identify some similarities and some differences between the experiences of the older women and the girls currently in school, as shown in the Table below. They also show that the key factors which led women to achieve academically are still important for today's children, namely:

  • the crucial role of education and of educators and in particular the value of a wider education helping the development of life skills through school clubs;
  • the significant part played by role models and informal mentors at each stage of their personal development;
  • personal characteristics such as self-determination to overcome the challenges they faced, motivation to achieve the goals they set themselves and confidence in their own ability.


All shared some experience of material poverty within their families or region. More girls are enrolled in school as a result of UPE and other initiatives, so girls are less likely than their older peers to feel isolated or unusual through being at school.
A significant proportion of both groups were from families where girls' education was actively discouraged. Older women had fewer female role models whereas girls today are more likely to know successful professional women.
The loss of one or more parents was a common occurrence among among both groups. A number of women experienced the impacts of political upheaval firsthand, while among the girls, only the Somali refugees have done so.
The experience of gender-based violence and sexual harassment was common across both groups. Almost all the women had experienced the impacts of political upheaval firsthand, while among the girls, only the Somali refugees have done so.
Long journeys to school were the norm in rural areas. Discrimination on the basis of gender existed for the older women at school, and continued into their adult lives at university and in the workplace.
Almost all girls and women experienced heavy burdens of domestic labour as children. Both groups experienced conflicts in balancing the demands of home and school or work, particularly through traditional beliefs about the role of women in the home. Girls today experience more pressure related to the decline of traditional culture, with women experiencing change while men stood still.
Early pregnancy and marriage were common amongst peers, and for some of the women.

All of the women had key figures in their lives who encouraged and supported them. Significant was the role of the father, who was the more prominent parent within the home, the decision-maker and the person with the capacity to supply material needs. Mothers, meanwhile, had no financial independence, and worked tirelessly in the background, performing an important role, though one which was often unrecognised at the time. There were nevertheless times when a mother played a more significant role, often following the death, imprisonment or banishment of the father during political turmoil. Also crucial for almost all of the adult women was the encouragement they received from their husbands, particularly when it came to further study, and to the sharing of childcare arrangements, with some husbands even exposing themselves to ridicule from others for taking on what were deemed to be women's duties.

Having become successful academically and in their chosen careers, the women were all giving back in some way to their kin and to the wider community. They had become supports of the disadvantaged and oppressed through practical and frequently financial support, guidance and counselling to younger women to continue their education, through development and community work, and through advocacy and raising awareness of women's rights through various organisations. In particular, several women, having experienced discrimination themselves in what were seen as 'male subjects', campaigned for girls' equal representation in mathematics and the sciences. Some were involved in formal mentoring schemes, such as that run by FAWE, while others acted as informal mentors to younger women.

Click on the link to download reports:  

Gender in East Africa: Women role models in Uganda (Gender Report 3). CCE Report No. 8.

Gender in East Africa: Women role models in Kenya (Gender Report 4). CCE Report No. 9.