Empowering the next generation - creating jobs in northern Uganda

Twenty-eight year-old Betty Nyaga was abducted during the civil conflict that ravaged northern Uganda for over 20 years. Taken by rebels at the age of 15, she remained in captivity for six years, and became a mother to two children. VSO volunteers are working through the local government in northern Uganda to rebuild the lives of young people like Betty, and hundreds of other war-affected youth by nurturing self-sufficiency through enterprise and local governance.

Decades of conflict, mass unemployment

Northern Uganda has one of the world’s youngest populations but after decades of conflict, scores of youth lack the necessary skills to earn a living. Thousands grew up in internally displaced people's (IDP) camps; while others were abducted in their childhood by the Joseph Kony led LRA (Lord's Resistance Army). Some were raped and forced to fight as child soldiers. Today, many of those young people suffer the social stigma of isolation and survive as subsistence farmers without an education, or means to earn a living.

Twenty-eight year-old Betty Nyaga is one such victim of war. Abducted from her village near Gulu by LRA rebels at the age of 15, she remained in captivity for six years. She was forced to live as the wife of a senior commander, and became a mother to two children. Betty eventually returned to her village as a widow and mother of two young children, only to discover her entire family had been killed during the conflict.

Relative peace has prevailed in Gulu since the war ended, but the legacy of decades of war is a jobless, disempowered younger generation. Recognising the problem, the Ugandan government started working to improve employment opportunities in the northern region in 2010, and is being supported by VSO in its efforts.

Empowering the next generation

VSO volunteers are working through the local government to target the most vulnerable war affected young people in northern Uganda, identifying and mobilising them on to an income-generating path out of poverty. The Youth Empowerment and Local Governance (YELG) project aims to empower Uganda's so-called 'lost generation', to help them on the road to employment by nurturing self-sufficiency through business. The enterprise groups include a focus on beekeeping/honey producing, agribusiness, baking and tailoring.

Betty is one of the girls and women training in bakery skills as part of this initiative, supported by VSO volunteer Jan Sharp. Jan works with the local government to organise training in bakery skills as well as basic business skills such as marketing and branding. The dearth of employment opportunities in northern Uganda makes enterprise the focus of the YELG project, the only real option available for youth to generate an independent income.

The YELG project gives women like Betty a boost by providing a shared oven to the group and extensive business skills training, but VSO volunteer Jan says cultivating a sense of ownership is key for the young people involved, "They chose the bakery project as their enterprise, so they own the oven. It empowers them so much more than just giving, giving, giving".

Laying the path for sustainable and holistic change

The watchword on the enterprise groups is sustainability. Giving young people the tools and skills to set up their own business and empowering the group to encourage others to do the same is the way this project aims to improve the lives of the youth in the long run.

Betty and others like her participate in the Village Savings and Loans Association as committee members, coordinating loans to villagers and managing the interest earned.

Tomorrow’s leaders

The twin objective of the project is to train youth in local governance, equipping them with the knowledge to advocate, exercise their rights, and ultimately, share their skills with others. Whilst a government policy for Ugandan youth exists, information is often not available to young people. So Jan has initiated a training programme for young members of the enterprise groups to identify suitable candidates to act as youth MPs in their district.

The women in the group all have a shared dark past in common, which means they offer one another mutual support in coping with hardship. With the support of VSO volunteers, hundred of youth affected by war are embarking on business ventures they couldn’t have previously imagined.

VSO International