From the day he was born, Brian Mutebi saw how much harder life was for the women in his family. Mutebi’s mother gave birth to him in secret, when she was still an unmarried student. Too terrified to tell anyone, especially her father, who had violently beaten an older sister during her teen pregnancy, Brian’s mother gave him up to a paternal grandmother.
“My mother had managed to conceal the pregnancy, but she couldn’t conceal the baby,” Mutebi says. “In the community where I’m from, teenage mothers were rejected by their own families. Domestic violence was rampant and acceptable.”
Mutebi says his father was a “reluctant father who did not care about his children.” He didn’t play any role in Brian’s upbringing, and left his mother. She died of HIV-related illnesses when he was only 10. From a very early age, Mutebi knew the fate of most teen mothers in his Ugandan village. They would drop out of school, become ostracized from their families and have no future. He saw it happen to his cousin, too, when she was 14 years old and pregnant. “This is what I grew up seeing, and I would wish I could do something about it. But there was nothing I could do then,” he says.
Seven years ago, when he was just 26, the journalist and devout Christian decided he could – and would – do something about it.
He founded a charity called Education & Development Opportunity – Uganda. Notably, the charity has so far provided scholarships to 26 survivors of domestic violence and children from impoverished families through its Brian Mutebi Dream Scholarship Fund. For the duration of their educations, the girls’ tuition fees and accommodations are covered. They also receive a small living allowance, healthcare, mentorship and psycho-social support.
Mutebi’s path from a troubled home life to one of Africa’s leading women’s rights crusaders was a long one – and only happened because of a piece of land.
Throughout his childhood, Mutebi studied hard but his family had no money to put him through high school. He enrolled anyway, with the hope he could pass in the top three of his class and get his fees waived. “I was first in my class,” he says. Not only was his school tuition covered, he also won a university scholarship. In 2007, he became the first person from his village to ever graduate from college. “That was a big achievement for me, but it also led me to think about how many children in my village did not have the same opportunities as me,” he says.
Mutebi started working as a freelance journalist and saved up his earnings to educate six children in his village, 43 miles (70km) away from Uganda’s capital city. “I knew if you give children education, you would transform society, you would transform their lives,” he says.
Soon, Mutebi began covering women’s stories. That’s when he came across this statistic in Uganda’s 2011 Demographic Health Survey: One in every four girls between the ages of 15-19 is either pregnant or has had a child. He soon learned that, of those teenage mothers, only one in 10 is able to go back to school. “For me, that was appalling,” he says. “I wondered, what can we do with this?”
He took matters into his own hands and sold a piece of land he had inherited. With the $1,500 from the sale, Mutebi created his charity.
The first scholarship his organization awarded was to a young woman who is now pursuing a law degree at Mutebi’s alma mater. This student had a rough upbringing in a slum after her father abandoned the family, leaving her mother with no money. “She is excited,” Mutebi says. “She is now going for second year at the university.”
Mutebi, whose organization also runs a Let Girls Be Girls campaign to educate girls about their sexual and reproductive health and rights, among other things, strongly believes that girls’ education is not just a woman’s issue. “It’s an agenda for humanity,” he says. “If women are not empowered, it doesn’t affect women only, it affects all of us.”
In his soft yet unwavering voice, he explains: “If girls could stay in school longer, and learn skills and start to work, Uganda’s productivity would be billions of dollars more. But when girls are prevented from realizing that, Uganda as a country loses. It’s in our interest and everybody’s interest to support girls.”
For Mutebi, economics aren’t the driving force behind his work. It’s primarily the compassion he feels for women like his own mother and cousin, who were stigmatized as teens. He tells the story of other girls he’s supported, like Harriet, a teen mother who dropped out of school when she got pregnant. Her partner practically disappeared from her life, and Harriet’s father disowned her. Mutebi convinced Harriet’s grandmother to take care of her baby, and he enrolled Harriet in a boarding school. Now, she wants to be a humanitarian worker and save lives during catastrophes.
But Mutebi doesn’t stop at just educating girls. He also spreads his message by encouraging other men to raise their voices for women. “Our cultures teach that a man should be masculine and dominant, but I think we need to change that,” he says. “We need to show that you are not superior to women, you need to treat a woman equally.”
He uses his platform as a writer and 120 Under 40 nominee – awarding young people working to improve family planning worldwide – to change the mindsets of men. “I think we can make much more difference if I go out and tell people, ‘You see? I am a man like you, but I recognize women’s rights.’”