When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Uganda in March 2020, the country responded with a school closure that went on for 22 months – the longest COVID-19-related school shutdown in the world. A growing body of evidence suggests that the impacts of this strict measure were devastating for children and young people’s well-being. One study, for example, found a 22.5 percent increase in pregnancies among girls and young women aged 10-24 from March 2020 to June 2021.
Vulnerable groups, such as refugee communities, were particularly affected as they lacked the means to pursue distance education and in many cases had to stop learning altogether. Anny Sybille Izere, a young communications specialist living in the Nakivale Refugee Settlement, immediately noticed the consequences: “Suddenly so many adolescent girls in my community were getting married or pregnant, some as young as 14. They could no longer go to school, nor did they have a job.” Through her work as Creative Content Manager at Kuja Kuja, Anny Sybille had the opportunity to talk to many of these girls and their families, realising that some of them were being pushed out of their homes due to the sudden lack of prospects: “When I understood what was going on, I just had to do something,” she says.
Determined and frustrated, Anny Sybille left her job to set up an organisation called Her Dreams Count. Building on what she had learned through her own professional experience, she organised a four-month programme to teach digital skills to adolescent girls living in Nakivale, hoping that they could use this knowledge to find employment and become self-reliant. Moreover, the courses would help them increase their sense of belonging and purpose in the community.
At first, Anny Sybille used her own savings to kick off the activities. Thanks to her connections, she found a South Africa-based trainer who agreed to give the lessons for free. Computer donations and external funding soon followed.
Anny Sybille’s dream
A refugee herself, Anny Sybille left her home in Burundi in 2015. Living amongst Nakivale’s diverse residents has largely shaped the personality of the 27-year-old professional: she is a polyglot fluent in English, French, Kirundi, Kinyarwanda, and Kiswahili, and feels perfectly at ease working with people from different nationalities (through her previous job she worked in projects in Uganda, Somalia, Rwanda, and Colombia). Her dream is to do more for this community that has hosted her for the past seven years.
Over 50 girls and young women from different countries of origin have already benefitted from Her Dreams Count’s digital skills programme. While schools in Uganda re-opened in January 2022 and many girls have resumed their formal education, Anny Sybille explains that there is still a huge demand for this type of training: “Over 120,000 refugees live in Nakivale, out of which 76 percent are women and children. For young women it is so important to acquire new skills that can increase their employability.”
With the support of other volunteers that have joined the organisation, Anny Sybille’s plan is to continue the activities and grow this project. “We still face big challenges, like limited internet connectivity and the fact that three to four girls need to share one laptop. But there is also a big opportunity to do more.”
According to Anny Sybille, all girls and women should be able to participate in the digital world and to benefit from the opportunities that it offers. “Everything these days is digital… the future is digital. We should do everything in our power to make sure that refugee women don’t stay behind and can also belong to that world,” she concludes.