Secrets of the ELA Sisterhood (Part I)

Andrew Huelsenbeck| KF16 |  Kampala, Uganda

Life is not easy for a lot of young women in Uganda. Many girls in poorer urban areas and in rural villages are regularly confronted with sexual assault, unwanted or unintended pregnancies, HIV, and the list goes on. These girls are also commonly forced to drop out of school early because they can no longer pay fees or because they need to help support their families. With these kinds of hardships, young girls are often trapped in poverty with few, if any, opportunities to develop independence and improve their lives.

Enter BRAC. Four years ago, BRAC Uganda began to address some of these problems by implementing what they call the Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescence Program (ELA Program). The program is designed specifically “to improve the quality of the life of vulnerable adolescents by organizing them, creating spaces of their own and helping them develop a set of skills so that they can live and grow as confident, empowered and self reliant individuals contributing to change in their own families and communities.”

Because it is set up to achieve so many ambitious goals, the ELA program can seem fairly complex at first glance. In this blog post, I want to outline how the program is organized and talk a little bit about some of the social components of the ELA clubs. And in the next blog post, I’ll talk more about the finance components of the ELA program and about the impact of the program overall.

General Organization of ELA

Meet Barbara. She works extremely hard to train ELA staff and to develop materials for the program. She has also been with the ELA program from the beginning and has an excellent grasp on how the program functions and on how far it has come. In the video below, I asked her about what she’s currently working on and about some of the major changes she has seen in the program over the years. Check it out:


As Barbara said in the video, the ELA program has expanded significantly in the past few years and as a result, has become much more decentralized. A colleague at BRAC once joked with me: “anyone who says they understand everything that’s going on with the organization is crazy.” Yet somehow, the program functions with uncanny efficiency.

ELA Management

Each ELA girl is a member of a local club, which is organized and managed by a mentor. There are currently a total 785 clubs, which are located all across Uganda. In general, clusters of about 10-15 clubs are linked to Branch Offices based on proximity. Each branch office has a Project Assistant who is responsible for supervising all of the clubs associated with the branch and for helping the clubs to strengthen their relationships with surrounding communities. The Project Assistants report directly to the Area Coordinators, who are responsible for overseeing a handful of Branch Offices in a specific district. Area Coordinators report to Regional Coordinators, who then report to the Uganda Program Manager. The program manager is responsible for overseeing all big-picture aspects of the program and is stationed mainly at the BRAC Country Office in Kampala.

Microfinance Staff

The ELA microfinance, which is recent addition to the ELA program, requires some additional staff members. At the branch level, there are Credit Officers, who are tasked with overseeing all the financial components of the program. ELA microfinance also has its own set of Area Coordinators, who are responsible for managing microfinance at multiple branches and must be present at all loan disbursements. The microfinance Area Coordinators also report to the Regional Managers and to the Program Manager. Every month, all of the Area Coordinators meet with the Program Manager at the Country Office to review the performance of their clubs and to discuss how to improve the program.

Club Houses  

The space used for the program consists mainly of extensions of community member’s houses, or of  public buildings rented by BRAC from local governments. This is the main space where club members and mentors meet six afternoons per week. The clubs also use community sports fields for certain athletic activities.

How to Join

The requirements to join a club aren’t strict at all. Any girl between 13 and 21 years old, who is a permanent citizen of Uganda and who can pay the 2,000 UGX (~$0.80) admission fee can join. All she really has to do is approach the local club’s mentor and ask.

The Social Components of ELA Clubs

Community Participation

One thing that is emphasized over and over again when discussing the ELA program with BRAC management is community involvement. From what I was able to gather, this happens in mainly two ways. The first way is called a mothers forum. Once, every two weeks or so, the Project Assistant from the branch will get together with the mothers of club members to discuss the club programs and things that the mothers can do to help empower their daughters. Another way that the community is involved with ELA clubs is through community leaders’ workshops. These are events where prominent female figures from the community visit a club to talk to the girls about sexual health, life challenges or a host of other topics.

Life Skills Based Education

The ELA program also provides girls with resources to learn more about life challenges and how to overcome them. The clubs focus on a wide range of topics including reproductive health, menstruation, familial and community responsibility, leadership, bride price, early pregnancy, STIs, family planning and rape. Mentors will normally focus on one aspect of one of these topics every day, and occasionally guest speakers will come to the clubs to give presentations to the girls. BRAC has also published books on each of these topics consisting of general advice and collections of stories from the lives of ELA girls.

Just below is a kind of introductory story from BRAC’s book on family planning. It’s called “Tough Times,” and is mainly about a young, 20-year-old woman named Stella and her struggle through her second pregnancy. It emphasizes the importance of leaving time between births.

Last year, in 2009, I got married to Mike, a bicycle cyclist.   I’m now five months pregnant. I was forced into marriage because my parents never wanted to stay with a pregnant woman. I had long stopped studying due to lack of finances at home.   

Mike stayed in a remote village. Once in a while, when a vehicle passed, every one waited in anticipation of their relative.  City people are claimed to be rich since they always carry with them so many gifts. In the village the main source of livelihood is agriculture and most of the farming done is for consumption. 

As it was my first pregnancy, I lacked knowledge on how to care for myself. Friends, however, encouraged me to visit the health centre for checkups.  

Throughout the pregnancy, I visited the health centre only once.  The long distance discouraged me form frequenting the place. I also lacked the money to receive the medical attention I needed. As a result, a traditional birth attendant helped me to give birth to my first child. She was easily available and cheap. 

Much as Mike tried so hard to meet every need of the family, the poor man failed. To make matters worse, I conceived again after ten months. This also affected our daughter so much. She was ever sick and crying. I also stopped breast feeding her since e I was down with morning sicknesses and the general discomfort that comes with pregnancy.  Eating also became a problem since we could only afford one meal a day. 

When it reached birth, Mike was able to gather some money to transport me to the health centre. I delivered with the help of the nurse, but I faced severe complications. I almost bled to death. I was weak and anemic. My baby looked so sick that I doubted his survival.  My daughter was stunted. Having two children in a couple of years was too much for me and it also strained my husband a lot.

The nurse advised me to go back for postnatal care, with my husband. She later explained that child birth was the most risky incidence and a threat to the woman’s health and that of her baby. She emphasized the need for birth spacing if we were to take good care of our children’s health and needs.

When the nurse had finished talking, it surprised me that I was so ignorant about family planning methods and birth spacing. Use of contraceptives would give me enough time to properly heal and properly take care of myself and the children before getting unexpected pregnancy. 

Since then, I have learned to use contraceptives.  I plan on waiting for my two children to properly grow before I conceive again. It is also important that I get a job so that I can supplement on Mike’s income. This will help us to properly take care of our family and keep it happy.  

Club Activities

To me, the club activities are in a big way the heart of the ELA program. They afford the ELA girls a daily opportunity to take a break from adversity, to talk about their experiences and to learn from one another.

Towards the end of my fellowship, I was lucky enough to visit the Kanyanya Club in the Zanna district in Kampala. Just before lunch one day, I hop on the back of a boda boda and speed just a few kilometers up the road to the main traffic hub in Zanna. I pick up two oily, floury pancakes called chapattis for lunch, then march off of the main road, back into the Zanna “slums” to find the Branch Office. I get a little lost on the winding backroads, but am only a few minutes late – Uganda style.

Once at the office, I am greeted warmly by the Project Assistant and an Area Manager I’ve met before. The three of us travel up about two kilometers of steep, dusty roads in the hot afternoon sun. It would have been much easier to take a boda boda, but the project assistant had recently been in an accident and really didn’t want to take any more chances. Just as I think I am running out of steam, we reach the top of a huge incline, descend down a short lane with lots of tree shade, and finally arrive at the club house.

It’s around two o’clock, and more and more girls filter in over the next hour. Many of the members aren’t around because they’ve gone to visit family in the villages for the holiday, and many of the girls that show up are also a bit drained from the intense heat of the sun. We still have a great time playing board games and dancing. Fortunately, I have my Flipcam and am able to grab some great footage of the club house and of the girls. Enjoy!


Andrew Huelsenbeck is a Kiva Fellow who worked in Kampala with BRAC Uganda. To learn more about BRAC, please visit their Kiva Partner Page. If you are interested in helping to empower one or more of BRAC’s many wonderful entrepreneurs, you can join the Friends of BRAC Uganda lending team or check out new BRAC Uganda loans on Happy lending!

About the author