Kim Wolf was 15 when she experienced the wonder of Africa.
“I went to Ghana for the first time. That’s when I first saw Africa for the beauty and the richness that it is and not the sadness and poverty,” she told the News-Press.
So Ms. Wolf, who graduated from San Marcos High School in 2005, decided to dedicate her life to learning more about the continent. That led her in 2012 to Uganda, where she did work for a women’s nonprofit in the nation’s capital, Kampala.
She met another woman working for the nonprofit, Monica Nyiraguhabwa, who grew up in the slums of that city.
The two young women decided to work together on helping the city’s girls and young women, who face gender-based violence and other challenges to their human rights in a patriarchal society.
“I left Monica with $100. She said, ‘Leave it to me. I’ll start training (people for the program),’ ” said Ms. Wolf, 31, about the birth of Girl Up Initiative Uganda.
Ms. Wolf and Ms. Nyiraguhabwa, 33, talked to the News-Press recently about the nonprofit that they co-founded. They sat together at the home of Ms. Wolf’s parents — Janet Wolf, a retired Santa Barbara County supervisor for the Second District, and attorney Harvey Wolf.
Ms. Wolf, who lives in Oslo, Norway, and Ms. Nyiraguhabwa, a Kampala resident, came to Santa Barbara for a fundraiser Oct. 6 at Mr. and Mrs. Wolf’s home. Kim Wolf estimated they raised around $15,000 during a benefit with music and Uganda cocktails.
Every dollar helps at Girl Up, which operates with a staff of 22 young women and men. All are Ugandans except for Ms. Wolf, and 16 of the 22 employees are coaches working with the kids.
Girl Up works with girls ages 9-15 in its Adolescent Girls Program, which goes into public schools, and its Ni-Yetu program for older girls and young women who dropped out of school. Ni-Yetu is Swahili for “It’s ours.”
So far, the program has helped 2,500 girls in the adolescent program, Ms. Wolf, the Girl Up deputy executive director, said. “We hope next year to help another 1,600 girls.”
She added that Girl Up has helped 118,000 young people in Kampala through its education, health and skills development programs.
Ms. Wolf explained that the one-year Adolescent Girls Program involves students learning from Girl Up coaches from their community.
“They learn about violence, human rights, puberty, menstruation and self-esteem,” Ms. Wolf said. “They also get hand-on skills to make different things for income.”
She added that the girls are taught to make sanitary pads, which they often don’t have the money to buy. “Usually they use towels or things they find that are unhygienic.”
Ms. Wolf said Girl Up encourages girls, who are taught in the Ugandan culture to be submissive, to speak up.
Ms. Nyiraguhabwa, the Girl Up executive director, said the staff reminds girls they’re “unique, brilliant and confident.”
She noted improving self-esteem is crucial to getting girls and women to report acts of violence against them.
“Gender-based violence is a big issue in Uganda,” Ms. Wolf said. “It’s about teaching women that violence comes in many forms — not only physical violence, but emotional violence, psychological violence.”
Ms. Nyiraguhabwa said Uganda has good laws against sexual assault, but falls short in enforcement.
She and Ms. Wolf went on to explain their nonprofit uses age-appropriate curriculum as it discusses sexual reproductive health and rights, contraceptives, birth control, and protection from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
“Uganda has done a really good job in lowering the HIV rates, but Kampala has the highest rate of HIV in Uganda among adolescents,” Ms. Wolf said.
“Younger girls are more susceptible to HIV because they have relationships with older men who might be positive,” Ms. Wolf said. “We have a nurse on our staff who will answer questions.”
“Teen-age pregnancies is also a big issue,” Ms. Wolf said, explaining conversations begin with the younger girls and go into more depth with the older youths.
Ms. Nyiraguhabwa said Uganda has a birth rate of five or six children per family and half of the families survive on no more than a dollar a day. “The standard of living — that’s a tough one.”
Ms. Wolf noted that their nonprofit operates a vocational program called Mazuri Designs, in which seamstresses train girls and young women to create colorful scrunchies, backpacks, skirts and other accessories. The students then can sell their products, which include earrings, to support themselves.
The program also raises money for Girl Up.
And Girl Up has expanded to include a program to help boys with their self-esteem.
Ms. Wolf said the boys program came about because of popular demand. “We would go to the schools, and the boys would go, ‘Boys Up! Boys Up!’ They were yelling at us because they wanted their own program.”
She added that the program teaches the boys to respect girls and women.
Ms. Nyiraguhabwa has seen first-hand the need for gender equality in her country.
She grew up in prison barracks where her parents, Joyce Apio and the late Victor Bikamata, were employed. She said her brother was a higher priority when it came for paying for school fees and supplies. “Mine came later on. They (her parents) would still pay, but his was a priority.”
As Ms. Nyiraguhabwa became older, she realized the unfairness and today sees Girl Up Initiative Uganda as a means of creating a “new normal” for her country.
The single mother, who’s engaged and has a son Juan Victor, 8, praised her mother for being an advocate today of girls’ education. She added that her mother cares for Juan Victor while she works.
Ms. Nyiraguhabwa knows the importance of a good education from her own life. She graduated in 2004 from St. Henry’s Girls School-Buyege, a Catholic high school in Kampala, and earned her bachelor’s in adult and community education in 2006 at Makerere University in Kampala.
Ms. Nyiraguhabwa received her master’s in education and international development in 2016 at University College London.
Ms. Wolf earned her bachelor’s in international development in 2009 at UC Berkeley and her master’s in Africa and gender studies in 2014 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Last year, she received her master’s in comparative and international education at the University of Oslo.
Both women hope to expand Girl Up to include its own center, which Ms. Nyiraguhabwa estimated would cost $1 million. She noted the facility will be a place where girls can speak to counselors or people with legal expertise in topics such as violence.
Ms. Nyiraguhabwa said the facility will include space for research.
“When we build that center, we shall have a space where the world can experience what it means to walk with girls.”