By Sarah E. Murphy
The Fourth of July is now a memory, and my husband and I have been in quarantine since before St. Patrick’s Day. While we’ve slowly but surely been getting out a bit more as the months creep by, the global pandemic persists. As I write this, it’s a flawless summer day, but I have yet to get to the beach this season, which is unheard of for this lifelong Cape Codder, who also happens to be a Pisces.
Italy has now closed its borders to Americans, after candidly pleading with the US not to make their mistake by underestimating the severity of the situation. I can’t say I’m remotely surprised, or that I blame them. Therefore it’s doubtful I’ll be making my fall research trip to Vatican City as planned, but thankfully, I can travel virtually, since my work as an advocate for clergy sex abuse survivors connects me to inspiring individuals all over the world. I recently had the pleasure of speaking by phone with Fred Sebaggala, founder and managing director of shelearns.org, a non-profit in Kampala, Uganda dedicated to educating and empowering girls and women.
Although it was nearly 9 PM his time, his day was not yet over, as he explained his motivation for starting the organization. Fred and his sister were raised by their mother Betty, a hard-working, single parent, who struggled and sacrificed in order to give her children all the things she lacked.
“She was not an educated lady, but she did what she could to make sure we always had the best. In the traditional African setting, women are viewed as second-class citizens. They cannot speak out. If my mother had been empowered, she could have made a difference in the world. A woman with a voice is, by definition, a strong woman,” he said, referencing one of the slogans of She Learns.
“I wanted to find a way to help other girls so they didn’t have to face the same challenges she did.”
Despite the lack of opportunities afforded to Betty in her youth, she is changing the world through her son, who challenges African cultural stereotypes by promoting equality in education. The impetus for his initiative came a few years ago when Fred attended a gender equality conference and felt compelled to make a difference. Today, he and his colleagues visit schools to motivate female students about their societal worth and potential, while educating them to be financially independent and self-reliant rather looking to a spouse to fill that role.
“We teach them that being a girl is not a bad thing. Girls deserve the same opportunities as boys. We challenge them to think like a ceo, a manager, or a preacher. How would they address their workers or their congregation if they were in charge? We build their self-esteem so they understand that their potential is already within them, because when she learns, she can win. When she learns, she can live a better life. When she learns, she can be anything she wants in this world,” Fred explained.
The organization also provides access to the most basic resources for girls and women, such as shoes and menstrual pads, for without them, they are unable to attend school or work.
“In some villages, it’s hard to get sanitary pads, and some girls can’t afford them. They worry people will laugh at them, which makes them feel pain and shame, and they can’t imagine how they could ever go to school in such a situation. So we bring sanitary pads to the villages, along with other needed supplies, like food,” he said.
The importance of a man working to end the stigma of menstruation, something so normal, which is often weaponized against women all over the globe, cannot be overstated. My respect for Fred is immeasurable. As a former Catholic, I experienced the shame that accompanied what should be welcomed as a healthy rite of passage, and many years later, I wrote an essay about how I learned about my period not from my mother, but instead from the awkward, cheesy filmstrip all the girls watched in sixth grade. My poor mom still apologizes for this, which wasn’t at all her fault, for she was a product of a religious system in which anything relating to sex was regarded as sinful and “inappropriate.” She was simply repeating the behavior she had learned from my grandmother, which was based in fear, more than anything else.
Instead of using religion to control women, She Learns does the opposite; it liberates them with references to the Bible, a concept so foreign to the patriarchal religion I left as a teenager.
“The Bible did not disparage women. God empowered both sexes, but the main way women have been put down in my country is by being silenced,” Fred said. “So we teach the girl child to look outside the box of the traditional setting. We teach her that women have value.”
She Learns also works to eliminate child labor and child trafficking, and to educate in the prevention of domestic abuse, therefore Fred took on an African leadership role in the global organization SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), through his work with SNAP Vice-President, Ashley Easter, US advisor to She Learns. Ashley interviews Fred in this video about his future goals for She Leans, such as the establishment of trade school where girls and women can learn vocational skills in order to pursue a career.
Empowering those who are marginalized is Fred’s greatest joy, for he believes helping others is how we truly succeed.
“If you want to build a strong woman, start with a girl. Even if it’s just one, behind that girl, there may be ten more. And when one girl is lifted, she can empower others. She can change the world.”