Women graduates transform rural life

DO-report-women-ARUWomen enrolled at ARU © ARU/J Akello

As the first and only women’s university in Eastern Africa, the African Rural University (ARU) aims to produce graduates who will remain and work within rural communities, rather than leaving for opportunities elsewhere. In so doing, it seeks to empower rural women to make a greater contribution to Uganda’s socio-economic development.

Founded in 2006 and located in Kibaale district in Uganda, ARU is dedicated to providing higher education to women and inspiring them to become leaders of change. In Uganda, the majority of girls drop out of schooling after the age of 12. Of those who complete secondary school, very few continue to degree level. However, according to ARU vice chancellor, Professor Denis Okello Atwaru, “Women properly trained at university level accelerate human development and rural transformation.”

Set up by the Uganda Rural Development and Training Program (URDT), the university primarily receives students graduating from URDT Girls’ School, though others are also admitted. It focuses on developing skills in agriculture, business and leadership. Key to this process is having a curriculum that is relevant to the needs of rural families, unlike conventional curricula, which frequently fail to prepare students for working in rural areas.

A community-based approach

ARU students are currently enrolled in two academic programmes, which comprise a Certificate in Rural Entrepreneurship and Business Management and a Bachelor of Science in Technologies for Rural Transformation. The curriculum for both courses is 60% theory and 40% practical, with students undertaking projects in their villages to put into practice what they have learnt. A lecturer is assigned to give advice for the community-based projects and students are graded for both theory and practical work. However, what matters most is the impact the students accomplish on the ground.

Bringing about changes in attitudes towards gender is just one part of this impact. Looking at the long-term, Okello Atwaru is positive about how the students have been received by men, particularly when their projects are seen to benefit the communities. “Their expertise is making them sit with men as equals and engage in participatory development discussions,” he says. Achieving such ‘equality’ can take time, however.

When Immaculate Nyagol, a 23 year old BSc. student, initiated a kitchen garden project in her village, she found that men were reluctant to work with her. She therefore approached wives from 10 households and, using her home garden as a demonstration plot, taught the women how to make kitchen gardens. Once the women began selling vegetables and earning their own income, the men became much more involved in the project. “If they (men) undermine me, I work with their wives who pull them in,” she says. The women were so impressed with Nyagol’s efforts that before she returned to university for further studies, they visited her house to thank her.

DO-report-Immaculate.jpgImmaculate Nyagol, explaining how to make kitchen gardens as part of the practical curriculum © ARU/J Akello

A fresh vision

Seventeen ARU graduates have been appointed as managers of URDT’s community-based epicenters (CBE) for development. The CBE managers help community members draft a vision of how they want to develop their village. Since graduating in 2011, Mary Anakuya Gorreth has been CBE manager at Burora sub-county. Working with five villages, she has promoted high value crops like cocoa, coffee, rice and vanilla as alternatives to maize and beans. Though the cocoa project is in its infancy, Anakuya has linked farmer groups with ESCO Uganda Limited, a private enterprise that promotes cocoa growing and provides inputs and technical support. She has also mobilised farmers to form the Kayembe Bright Farmers’ Group, which has enabled them to access credit for farm inputs, school fees and home improvements.

Every year, ARU aims to admit 30 students to each academic programme, although filling the places is a challenge. This is partly due to the low numbers of girls completing high school, with many who do, opting to pursue further studies in the city, where the quality of education is perceived to be higher. ARU is also relatively new and not yet widely known. According to Okello Atwaru, the concept of returning to a rural area to help transform communities is not an attractive option for many graduates. “People have yet to fully appreciate the benefits of ARU’s model of education and curriculum,” he says. “However, we know our innovative approach works and for the young women that graduate, they are really making a difference.”

DO-report-ARU_professor.jpgAn ARU professor assisting students during field work with rural communities © N Korn

Top of page