Gallo, Jacqueline Carey (2017). 'How are female student leavers’ combined capabilities being developed and/or restricted as they transition out of secondary school?: Preliminary findings from an ethnographic study in rural Uganda' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


This submission discusses preliminary findings of an in-progress yearlong ethnographic study of one Catholic missionary-founded secondary girls’ boarding school in Karamoja, Uganda. This doctoral study aims to implement Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach as an analytical tool to understand what constitutes a ‘good education’ for female students preparing to transition to unknown futures beyond secondary school. The central research question asks, ‘How are female student leavers’ combined capabilities being developed and/or restricted as they transition out of secondary school?’

Only 2% of Karamoja females complete lower secondary and 1% complete upper secondary education (UNESCO, 2011). These students are, therefore, currently less vulnerable and more protected than their out-of-school female Karamojong counterparts – protected from the real dangers outside the school walls of food insecurity, difficulty in accessing the formal labour market, chronic poverty and the highest gender-based violence statistics in the nation (Irish Aid, 2010). Furthermore, they attend the oldest girls’ secondary school in Karamoja which expects them to stay in school and graduate. Global and national data suggest that this small group have already optimised their chances of successful transition to adult life in ways which will move them away from marginalization and vulnerability; the data do not describe, however, how this educated group of young women will cope with their impending futures.

Unterhalter and colleagues (2014) underscore the lack of research in contexts of single sex and faith schools; therefore, we cannot determine if positive gains (and if so which positive gains) are being made in girls’ education and learning there. Hence they conclude that priority should be given to research that aims to provide a deeper, more substantive understanding of faith communities and their involvement in girls’ education (Unterhalter et al., 2014). Nussbaum (2000) warns that ‘secular humanists who marginalize religion tend to treat religion as an enemy of women’s progress...thus alienat[ing] people who could become...influential allies’ (pp. 181 – 182). Following these arguments and having completed a pilot study with this religious congregation in two Ugandan schools, it would be remiss not to seize the opportunity of conceptualising the study through the Capability Approach and approaching both religious educators and faith schools alike as allies in promoting quality girls’ education and challenging inequalities to support social change. This ‘take’ on student lives, may, I hope, pre-empt the assumption that discourse about them must always focus on marginalization and vulnerability.

Using the Capability Approach as a frame for analysis will help determine whether and to what extent student leavers are developing capabilities that will lead them to establish their own Eudaimonia in the world. Key questions in this study revolve around how students transition; these include 1)what competing narratives influence their future goals and opportunities; 2)how do different individuals, societal expectations, and government or foreign aid agencies enhance or restrict students’ decision making capabilities; and 3)what can the school offer in terms of religious, pastoral support and life skills education to equip them to transition successfully to ‘live a life worth living’?

In this paper, I will present preliminary data from eight months of observation, interviews, group discussions and journal writing from participant groups ranging from the students themselves to school alumnae, school staff, religious administrators, and families. I will use Hatakka and colleagues’ Capability Framework (2014) to test and present an emerging theory of capability development for this study’s student leavers for evaluation and critique by the HDCA Fellows. 

Keywords:  secondary education, ethnography, faith schools, girls’ education, East Africa 

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