The teacher giving girls a second chance in Karamoja

Grace Awilli, 45, a teacher of business studies at Abim Secondary School, is on a mission to give pregnant teenagers a second chance at education.  PHOTOS | GEORGE KATONGOLE

What you need to know:

  • Under the Covid-19 circumstances, schools have been directed to allow pregnant students continue with education. Rejection and consequently stigma are common in such situations. Grace Awilli, 45, a teacher of business studies at Abim Secondary School, took up this issue as a personal mission.

The challenge of girls returning to school after almost two years of school closure presents bigger challenges to learners and teachers alike than meets the eye.

In a place such as Karamoja where education, especially to the girl child is not a priority, any helping hand is welcome. Literacy rates in the Karamoja region are some of the lowest in the country, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the overall literacy rate for Karamoja stands at only 25 per cent, compared to 94 per cent in Kampala. Traditional practices and culture that encourage young boys to stay at home to look after animals and for girls to prepare themselves for marriage are the biggest contributing factors to the region’s  low literacy levels.

When schools temporarily resumed in 2020, schools had to accommodate girls that were pregnant.  For a long time, pregnant girls have been discontinued on grounds of morality or as a punishment since education is regarded as a privilege that can be withdrawn.

To restore hope and allow girls to continue with education, Grace Awilli, 45, a teacher of business studies (Accounts, Commerce, Economics, and Entrepreneurship) at Abim Secondary School, took up this issue as a personal mission. 

“As a mother and a role model, who grew up in similar challenges, I did not drop out of school but similar hardships encouraged me,” Awilli, who has taught since 2001, says in an interview.

A religious leader conducts an awareness compaign on girl-child education in Karamoja.

Africa has the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world, according to the United Nations. Every year, thousands of girls become pregnant at the time they should be learning history, algebra, and life skills. Adolescent girls who have early and unintended pregnancies face many social and financial barriers to continuing with formal education.

The mother of five, among whom the eldest daughter is a midwife, comes from very humble beginnings; her parents were peasant farmers  who struggled to pay her school fees. They ended up sending her to an uncle, who took her through school. 

“My uncle wanted me to get educated but his wife was not very supportive. Dependents such as myself, for instance, were not supposed to enjoy the luxurious meals at home. They were a preserve for her children. One day she told me that if you do not have an educated member of your family, you will never see good things in life. That encouraged me,” she says, boasting of a decent life now.

Leading transformation

So, when Awilli realised that a number of girls were about to drop out of school, she found a perfect opportunity to give them a second chance. 

“During this lockdown, when girls dropped out of school, it was a big concern for me. One particular girl called Sharon Atyo Modesta, who was in Senior Three caught my attention.

Atyo got pregnant and would have lost her scholarship from Straight Talk Foundation. But I got involved, talked to the school administration and the sponsors and they both agreed to give her a second chance to return to school. She would come and attend lessons while we took care of the baby. We would call her out whenever the baby needed feeding or some other attention.  I told her that having the responsibility of a child would encourage her to read harder. She sat her Senior Four examinations last year,” Awilli says.

Another girl, she prefers not to name, from Awach, was also pregnant and gave birth. Awilli offered her similar support. She was sponsored by Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) to sit her exams. 

“I was sent to Awach by the school to talk to her parents. They resisted but I insisted that much as their girl had faced challenges, they needed to give her a second chance. When FAWE agreed to sponsor her, they reluctantly sent her back to school,” Awilli says.

She sat her Senior Six examinations and got 10 points. Right now she has been admitted under the quota system to Kyambogo University.

“We have others that had got into sexual relationships with men but through talking and encouraging them, they changed hearts and returned to school,” she says.

But others such as Akello from Alerek, about 13km away from Abim Secondary School the biggest government school in the area, could not be helped because she was in Senior Two. For the past two years, only children in candidate classes have returned to school.

At the school of 600 students, seven girls got pregnant in candidate classes. She adds that they had cases of children who underwent abortions. 

“We normally carry out pregnancy tests on all girls and we could find traces of active hormones that the girl is pregnant but in actual sense she is not. When you interact with them and probe, they reveal it all. We had a referral to the main hospital where we work with Rose Betty Akech Ekanya, who is also a pastor who counsels them too,” Awilli says.

Another girl only identified as Edna, got pregnant and Lorem Secondary School chased her away but she was accommodated at Abim SS. She was admitted to Kyambogo and her mother took care of the child as she pursued her education. She is now a social worker in Lira.

Awilli says as a school, they have taken on such students as special cases. Much as most did not perform well, they have qualified for vocational education. She has guided some to pick forms to attend St Kizito Technical Institute Madera, Abim Technical, Lira Technical and the Nurses Training School. 


Rejection and consequently stigma are common in such situations. There is a great need for close people to be supportive. Awilli is happy because when she speaks to the children, most feel understood and comforted. 

“Once again they rise and walk because we tell them that we can make mistakes but that should not be the end of the world. If you give them a chance, others become successful. When they do, you now have role models you can use to encourage others. We invite them to speak to the students. You know peer-to-peer mentoring is sometimes very successful. When they listen to their fellow adolescents speaking to them about their experiences and what they went through and how they overcame it, then someone can change. They will realise they are not the only ones in such a situation,” Awilli says.

Carolyne Atyang, who comes from the hard-to-reach Nyakwae Sub-county, bordering Napak, is another living testimony of Awilli’s work. She married in Senior Two but Awilli spoke with her and she went back to school and qualified as a teacher.  Atyang says she leads a fulfilling life after divorcing her polygamous husband.

In areas such as Nyakwae, people still believe that girls have no right to education.  When a woman chooses to remain single into her 20s, she is labelled a prostitute because the common belief is that a girl cannot abstain from sex. Many people, including elders, believe that if someone chooses to pursue education, by the time they reach university, they have had many men or aborted several times.

“They really do not attach much value to education. They believe in marriage. The girls are married off at 13 or 14 years. There is a lot of forced marriage so that parents can get the bride price” she notes.

Awilli is now a trusted member of her community in a place she says has high cases of struggling parents.

“Even when a neighbour has a challenge with the child, they normally approach me. Even when there are community meetings, people want me to speak about it. It has now given me the platform,” she says.

Helping hand

Awilli is a member of the Abim Interreligious Advocacy Group (ABIAG). The group unites religious leaders and elders with an aim of creating change by talking against negative norms.

“We front the elders to speak about norms that have affected us for so long and kept Karamoja behind because most people think these customs are normal and that they should continue,” Awach says. 

ABIAG is funded by the Action for Social Change (ASC) programme under the Adventist Development Relief Agency (ADRA). The programme works with community-based groups to promote community empowerment and government accountability.

The programme is currently active in Abim, Kotido and Kaabong districts with an aim of creating social change and tackling structural problems and injustices. Members are facilitated in terms of advocacy to impact livelihoods.

ABIAG, which was registered in 2018, bringing together leaders from the Anglican Church, Seventh-Day Adventists, Catholic, Muslims and cultural leaders, handles a wide spectrum of issues including alcoholism, gender-based violence, HIV and Aids, drug abuse and reproductive health.

During their outreach activities, members of ABIAG organise meetings in the community from which they talk to parents and children. Every outreach mission must have a female member on board. This is how Awilli came to be a popular choice as she is allowed to share her experience for being a role model in the community as a successful teacher.

Rev Richard Ongom, a member of ABIAG explains that they encourage youth addicted to drugs and alcohol abuse to seek income generating activities such as brick making. For the girls, it helps to stop relying on sugar daddies as their payment is very expensive.

The group hosts a radio programme on a community radio, Radio Karibu, where they have been able to talk about family issues. They invite children to share their ideas on youth-related topics.

According to Enock Byafaki, the ADRA community support officer in Abim, they have been able to facilitate the regular dialogue meetings, pay office rent and procure a camera and public address system for ABIAG while training on capacity building in terms of advocacy.

Dianah Balaba Sande, the Advocacy and Public Relations Officer of ADRA Uganda, explains that the ADRA advocacy programme helps in advancing critical thinking and leadership to highlight community issues.

“Sometimes as funders, we are limited but empowering local organisations, which is a key pillar of the ASC programme, enables us to create real impact. I am really happy that through partnering with religious and cultural leaders, we have been able to tackle such issues and help children to gain a second chance,” Balaba said.

Dismal rates 

According to United Nations Population Fund, more than  70 per cent of the population aged 10 and above in Karamoja has never been to school, of whom the majority are women. The overall literacy rate for Karamoja stands at only 25 per cent, compared to 94 per cent in Kampala, while 60 per cent of women are unable to read and write.