A picture paints a thousand words, so they say, in which case a 2-metre-high sculpture has the power to tell the whole story.

And what a story it is, told by Leave no girl behind – an abstract sculpture designed and created by champion teacher Drolence Nalikka, who teaches art and design at the PEAS Onwards & Upwards School in Uganda.

Inspiring monument

The monument, standing proudly on display outside the school, is an innovative and inspiring reminder of the importance of ensuring education for all, illustrating the support available to girl students to help them complete their secondary education, despite the barriers they may face.

One such barrier is early pregnancy, and it was Drolence’s assignment to support a pregnant 17-year-old that got the teacher thinking. She explains: “Adia enrolled to pursue her A-level studies without knowing she was pregnant. I noticed from calling the roll that she had started missing a lot of school, so I spoke to the head teacher. The school nurse subsequently confirmed the young girl was pregnant, after a positive test.”

That could have been the end of Adia’s educational journey as, in Uganda, girls who are pregnant or who have given birth are often prevented from returning to school. At PEAS’ schools, however, they are encouraged to continue their schooling and are supported in looking after their families, if required.

Pursuing studies

Fortunately, in this case, Adia’s guardian was keen for the girl to pursue her studies while pregnant. But that didn’t mean it was easy for the teenager. As her pregnancy progressed, she felt more and more out of place among her classmates, and she started to become withdrawn. Concerned for her wellbeing, head teacher Aisha Nakku assigned Drolence to keep an eye on Adia and provide counselling and other psycho-social support to enable her to stay in school.

Drolence recalls: “I had many questions buzzing around in my head. I felt empathetic and sympathetic towards the girl’s situation. With continuous guidance and counselling, she was able to compose herself, gain confidence and fit into the school community and society.”

After giving birth, Adia was able to return to school, while her daughter was cared for by her grandmother. She went on to do really well in her A-level exams, obtaining three principal passes and enough points to progress to third-level education.

Says Drolence: “From that experience, I appreciated the fact that education is, indeed, a way of empowering marginalised girls and that the awareness of the community needs to be raised of how educating girls can unlock their potential, despite the challenges they may be facing.”

Raising awareness

It was with the aim of raising awareness – among students and teachers, in the school and the community – that Drolence developed the idea of the sculpture. The freestanding monument comprises a set of five steps on which stand three figures. The steps represent the levels of education in Uganda – from kindergarten (step 1) to university and the world of work (step 5). The latter, as the top step, is the biggest, illustrating the scale of the achievement in getting that far.

Standing on the bottom step is a small female figure, who is being given a hand up by a larger female figure on the middle step. This woman, in turn, is being helped up by an even bigger female figure on the top step, wearing a graduation cap. Drolence explains their significance: “The middle figure is a young girl who got pregnant while still at school. She is responsible for the needs of the small figure, her child, while at the same time trying to study hard and perform well in school.

“She is being supported to finish her studies by the top figure, who represents a parent, a guardian, the school, the community, the FCDO Girls’ Education challenge, the Onwards & Upwards secondary school, and PEAS Uganda. The graduation cap with the tassel being worn by the top female figure illustrates how everyone who supports girls’ education is a source of inspiration to the young generation.”

Education unlocks potential

Between the first and second figures is a large key, which represents how education unlocks the young mother’s potential, helping her overcome challenges to bring up her child and have a bright future. The parts of the key, too, have a special meaning.

Drolence adds: “The blade signifies the importance of education to the mother. Every girl has a right to and deserves the chance to have a good education. The bow, which lies at the bottom, represents the effort to seize any educational opportunity that arises. Between the bow and the blade is the block, which stands for the risks and challenges for any girl undertaking the education journey, which can be turbulent.”

This uplifting artwork was completed in September 2022 and unveiled as part of the celebrations to mark the first PEAS multi-storey building at the Onwards & Upwards School.

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