Pedaling Toward Gender Equitable Education: Barriers to Secondary School, Bodily Autonomy, & Sexual Health & Reproductive Rights


For nearly a decade, I've cycled to and from my office in Rome, Italy. Rome is a beautiful mess.  Nearly everything about life here contrasts with my upbringing in northern Wisconsin (USA). Here in Rome, I work on increasing access to and completion of secondary education for forcibly displaced youth, especially girls, in nearly 60 countries. Additionally, I am the mother of a teenager.  My daughter is 16 years old – the same age as many of the youth in conflict and crisis-affected settings who have faced multiple intersectional barriers to accessing and completing secondary education.  Like Rome, but each in its own way, the settings where I work are also completely different from the context where I grew up.  

One such place is Uganda's West Nile region, which is the largest refugee-hosting district in the country, and consequently, on the African continent. One of the barriers to secondary school in this region is the distance between the limited supply of secondary schools and the settlements where refugees live.  After more than a year of careful planning, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has launched a project in partnership with World Bicycle Relief in this region to address distance-to-school related barriers to secondary education. 

Distribution of bicycles at a secondary school in the Adjumani District of Uganda Photo Credit: JRS Uganda
Distribution of bicycles at a secondary school in the Adjumani District of Uganda
Photo Credit: JRS Uganda

Bicycles enhance the safety of the youth who travel the longest distances between their homes and schools in this region. Moreover, the bikes aim to facilitate timelier school arrivals for girls in the mornings and more time for homework in the evenings. This is crucial as many girls are expected to finish housework before attending school each morning. In the evening, they are responsible for a disproportionate share of domestic chores, such as cooking, cleaning, collecting firewood or water, and looking after younger siblings or elderly family members.*

Even the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) from the local government issued a letter of support for this project, noting how it will support students’ love of learning and allow them to stay in school. He pledged the support of the district education office to ensure that the bicycles are used for their intended purposes. Even so, and despite careful project planning, including a thorough assessment, a recent monitoring visit to one refugee settlement revealed that girls are being prohibited from riding bicycles, grounded in a belief that riding them would "break their virginity."   

Plans are in place to address his latest hiccup in implementation. Our local staff is working closely with local community and faith leaders, teachers, parents and students, to address this challenge in the short-term, but also to understand and address deeply rooted beliefs about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in the longer-term. This latest challenge is also an opportunity to enhance SRHR education for everyone – girls, women, boys, and men alike. I share this recent challenge as a reason for investing in Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE)—part of a comprehensive gender-responsive education approach that seeks to provide youth with the necessary knowledge, skills, and values to make informed decisions about their SRHR, well-being, and bodily autonomy.  

Today, it's about empowering youth—like my daughter—to choose whether to ride a bike to school. Tomorrow, it's about deciding when to marry, and if or when to have children. According to INEE’s latest Mind the Gap report, “SRHR education is key to preventing unintended pregnancies, which lead to school drop-out or exclusion for us to 4 million teenage girls annually in sub-Saharan Africa alone.”  In the West Nile Region, a young woman forced to marry early and drop out of school once told me, “We girls are born to bring cows, not to study.” While holding a newborn baby, she said she wished to return to school, become a nurse, and "do something good for the world." Like my own daughter, this young woman was pure potential. Unlike my daughter, growing up a world away, this young woman’s SRHR has been dominated by patriarchal decision making that does not allow her to continue going to school, pursue her dreams, reach her fullest potential, or even ride a bike.

As noted in the Mind the Gap 3 report, 

“Men and boys have often been absent from the focus on SRHR, yet SRHR education can start to address harmful male gender norms that discourage health- and help-seeking behaviors and promote sexual dominance. Thus, men’s engagement in SRHR education needs to move beyond primarily focusing on their role as supportive peers and partners to engage them as stewards of their own SRH. Successfully meeting the SDG target of ensuring universal access to SRHR will be impossible without engaging men and boys as full, equitable partners who are invested in their own health and are supportive of – and not decision-makers in – women’s health and autonomy (Shand & Marcell, 2021).”

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In South Sudan, JRS works to address educational barriers and violence girls face in their daily lives.
Photo Credit: Laura Lira for Entreculturas/JRS South Sudan (Yambio)

From our experience at JRS, we've learned that focusing on SRHR for 'girls only' can inadvertently escalate gender-based violence. It leads to backlash and resistance from boys and men. Recognizing this, JRS is finalizing a Boys' Club curriculum tailored to equip boys with essential life skills. By including lessons about SRHR, our Youth Club programming is specifically designed to reduce gender-based violence within refugee settings. This curriculum is rooted in extensive research, incorporating insights about themes informed by a literature review and direct feedback from stakeholders, including refugee boys and girls.

I grew up in small-town USA.  My daughter experiences her youth in the heart of the Caput Mundi. Around the globe, youth live in exile. Our backgrounds and stories might differ, but a universal challenge unites us all: to close the gap in education for all girls and boys. Be it as donors, implementers, policymakers—or simply as mothers and daughters, we all have a part to play. Despite many challenges, I believe our collective efforts can improve the delivery, planning, funding, and monitoring of girls’ and women’s education in crises. We all have gifts to contribute.

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*This is a gender-responsive project, meaning that it addresses “the different situations, roles, needs, and interests of girls, boys, women, and men in the design and implementation of activities, policies, and programs” to improve their access to education.  A gender-transformative education project seeks “to examine, challenge, and change harmful gender norms and imbalances of power that advantage boys and men over girls, women and persons of other genders.”

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Jill Drzewiecki is the Gender-Responsive Education Specialist with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Rome, Italy. Drzewiecki is also the mother of a teenager and lives in Rome with her daughter and husband. In addition to an MS in Environmental Education from Lesley University, she completed post-graduate work in forced migration at the University of Oxford and Harvard University’s Global Mental Health: Refugee Trauma and Recovery program.  She earned her BA in International Studies and Environmental Science and was honored as an Ambassador of Peace by St. Norbert College by her alma mater, St. Norbert College, in 2022.