Sr. Maria was born and raised in Byerima Village, in the Rakai district of Uganda where there are strict societal rules that govern male-female relations. Men occupy most leadership positions and make all of the critical family decisions, while the main role of women is to bear and raise children and to produce and prepare food for the family. Girls get inadequate education and are given away for marriage at an early age in exchange for wealth. Since women have limited access to education and productive resources such as land, and lack independence and decision-making autonomy, they are underpaid for their long hours of work and generally lack control over their lives.
Before Sr. Maria went to school, she did not realize that women could do jobs other than preparing food for the family and cleaning the home. When she started school (and was first taught by female teachers) she realized that their life style was much better than that of the women in her village. These teachers inspired her to make the most of the chance given to her by her parents so she studied hard and excelled even though she sometimes missed class when her parents were not able to pay her tuition on time. Some of her friends were not so fortunate however, and were forced to leave school when their parents could no longer afford to pay their tuition – most of these were girls.
After making her religious vows with the Daughters of Mary in 2006 Sr. Maria was sent to Bukalagi Parish where she served as the Director of the church choir and the Xaverian Movement youth group. During that time she noticed two girls who were absent most of the time while their brothers never missed a day of class. When she inquired, the girls’ mother shared that her husband did not value girls’ education and that she had experienced extreme emotional abuse and physical punishment for trying to advocate for her girls’ education. Talking to many other women Sr. Maria discovered that, while educated women faced many of the same challenges, they were much better equipped to navigate them and fared much better. She learned that uneducated women were often faced with domestic violence due to cultural beliefs about male dominance in relationships coupled with their nearly complete financial dependence.In an attempt to help, Sr. Maria initiated a knitting club where women were intended to knit things for sale, however they could not raise enough money for yarn so they were not able to make progress with that project. After soliciting suggestions from the women, Sr. Maria helped to organize a farming project on donated land. In order to promote and nurture this project further, she invited more women to come and join the choir since they would have a few minutes to talk after choir practice about the next steps of their project and how they could help each other in other ways. Her goal was to empower these women and also to help them look at their life situations in a different way.
Sr. Maria says she has learned so much from her personal experiences over the years that have informed her understanding of the reasons for the limited opportunity of achieving education for so many girls in Uganda. A cultural belief that women must remain home to take care of the family and a deep poverty that prohibits parents from sending their children to school are main factors. When there are inadequate funds to send all children to school preference is most often given to male/older children – and least often given to female/younger children.
Uganda’s poorest women include thousands of small farmers living in remote areas scattered throughout the country. These women work on family farms to grow food for their family’s immediate needs however they cannot find employment outside the home. Since most women do not own land, they face constraints in credit markets which traditionally make loans against land. These circumstances have resulted in women being marginalized and unable to change the poor conditions in which they live. "It is my hope that the income generated by EYN sponsored micro-businesses will allow women to meet the basic needs of themselves and their families without depending as much on their husbands for financial support which will help to reduce the level of domestic violence. Also that they will be better able to support the education of girls whose chances of going to school are limited by society."
The International Peace Scholarship Fund, established in 1949, is a program which provides scholarships for selected women from other countries for graduate study in the United States and Canada. Members of P.E.O. believe that education is fundamental to world peace and understanding.