How Rwandan schools are teaching students to promote female empowerment

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Credit: Sam Kalinda / CARE

The boys sit in rows in the classroom, wearing their white school uniforms. They are paying close attention to their teacher’s words; he is teaching them how to respect the girls and women in their lives and report abuse they may face. In a nearby classroom, girls are similarly attentive to their own teacher, who is instructing them on financial independence and reproductive health, so that they can better plan the size of their families in the years to come.

These classes are part of the Safe Schools for Girls Project, created by Care International, that takes place in 174 Rwandan schools, after regular classes end. While the Western world largely remembers Rwanda as the stage of a large-scale genocide in 1994 — a 100-day period of carnage that resulted in Hutu extremists killing 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus and the rapes of around 500,000 women —  Rwanda has come a long way in the intervening years. Currently women make up more than 60 percent of the country’s parliament, and women are making strides to closing the gender pay gap: In 2018, they make 88 cents to a man’s dollar.

Yet, there are still human rights problems in Rwanda. The United Nations believes that about 34 percent of Rwandan women suffer from intimate partner violence during their lives compared to around 27 percent and 25 percent of their U.K. and American counterparts, respectively. Rwanda is also plagued by human trafficking; the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons ranks the country on its “Tier 2 Watchlist.”

Rwandan Sam Kalinda aims to address these problems through education as the project manager of Safe Schools for Girls and employee of CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere) International. Kalinda spoke to The FBomb about how this initiative came to life, how it prepares teachers to educate students on these topics, and how this program could impact Rwanda.

The FBomb: How was the Safe Schools for Girls project created? What exactly is it?

Sam Kalinda: CARE has operated educational programs in Rwanda since 2003, beginning with addressing the emotional and psychological needs of vulnerable children after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. As part of the national reconciliation process post-genocide, the country has generally made remarkable progress in supporting children and young people, and the Safe Schools for Girls project is part of this process. We recognized the shift in needs and challenges among communities. There are high rates of violence against girls, low rates of students staying in school, a need for continued mentorship of young people in terms of life skills development, and persistent poverty levels in our communities. Given these challenges, coupled with a government policy and operational environment which is conducive to partnerships, Rwanda emerged as a perfect fit for this program.  

Safe Schools for Girls is a program aimed at enabling girls and boys in low socio-economic status to pursue their education by reducing the number of girls who drop out of school by 10 percent and increasing the number of girls who transition from lower to upper secondary education in targeted schools by 20 percent. The program is being implemented in 174 schools in five districts of the southern province of Rwanda, reaching up to 47,564 students (27,797 girls and 19,767 boys) in lower secondary education ranging in age from 11 to 18 years old. CARE runs the program in the schools through partnership with organizations like the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and African Enterprise (AE) in Rwanda.

The project aims to reduce the number of girls who drop out of school, increase their attendance and performance in school, and increase the number of girls who transition into secondary education. How does it do this?

First, let’s take a step back to look at the bigger picture. The Rwandan government provides free education for the first nine years to all children. Though great progress has been made in reducing dropouts and increasing the transition into secondary education for both boys and girls, there is still a remarkable inequality in education between genders. The pass rates for girls are lower than those for boys: According to Rwandan education statistics, the results of 2013 lower secondary final examinations report 90 percent of boys who passed vs. 80 percent of girls. Attendance rates are also lower for girls: 2010 data shows that attendance rates for girls in primary school is 88 percent, and that drops to 16 percent for secondary schools. At the same time, girls also have higher dropout rates: The rate for girls dropping out was 17 percent in lower secondary education and 7 percent in upper secondary education in 2012.

Our challenge is not only keeping girls in school, but boosting their performance while they’re there. Unfortunately, the fear of harassment, gender-based violence, early initiation into sex, and teenage pregnancy are among the major challenges that negatively affect girls’ school attendance and retention. Poor attendance contributes to low learning levels; academic failure is one of the factors leading to dropout. Even when young girls from poor backgrounds make it to school, they are overburdened by their workload at home, often lack the time to study, and are less able to pay attention while attending class than are boys. This pattern often results in girls leaving school before they acquire the basic skills needed for future livelihoods to provide for themselves and their families.

We address these challenges by making school relevant and supportive for the girls by tackling some of the problems they face.

Can you tell us more about how you tackle these problems?

Specifically, we train over 1,670 school-based teacher mentors to provide guidance and counseling to students and out-of-school adolescents, and to deliver a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health, self-confidence, and financial literacy knowledge to the girls.

We build financial literacy knowledge and skills through lessons as well as through real-world application and activities which build tangible savings and assets, to create a modest financial cushion that allows families to support both their sons’ and daughters’ educations. For example, we have formed student clubs focused on skills related to building savings, as well as financial, economic, business, and entrepreneurial literacy. In these clubs, which are known as Village Savings and Loans Associations, members pool their savings and loan small sums to each other to make entrepreneurial purchases such as buying rabbits to later re-sell. It also helps girls to purchase their immediate needs such as school and personal hygiene items — which keeps them in school. We also engage adolescents and community members in a social accountability process, known as a “school scorecard,” so they can actively monitor the school and community environments. This creates an accountability forum among decision makers, local officials, and parents. The outcome becomes good governance that eventually creates a better environment for learning.

Deliberately developing and supporting boys’ skills, as well as their perceptions of girls, is a crucial part of this process. We fully engage boys in supporting girls’ education, and help them become champions and defenders of girls rights, so that both girls and boys have access to the same quality education and supportive environments.  For example, boys from the program do the same home chores as girls, without saying that it was “meant” for a student of either gender.

Building key leadership competencies among girls and boys is also important to empowering them to have the skills needed to make decisions that positively impact their lives. We have clubs that meet every week for an hour to two hours to reflect on topics such as menstruation and family planning. Mentors increase access to accurate and comprehensive reproductive health lessons as well as access to health care providers who can answer questions. They also provide one-on-one counseling to club participants, including referrals to health services for contraceptive and reproductive health needs.

We also strengthen gender-based violence (GBV) reporting to create an environment of accountability, awareness, and action to address GBV. A code of conduct insures perpetrators of gender-based violence are held accountable.

All of these efforts help girls stay in and complete school.

How have students, teachers, and parents involved in the program responded to the experience so far?

The program is in its fourth year and we’re already seeing great results. Girls have more confidence and have gained leadership skills; attendance rates are up as are graduation rates. From the data collected from a representative sample of 180 project participants, 40 percent of the initial project beneficiaries have graduated to upper secondary, and girls are performing better. We’ve also seen that more students are saving and taking loans to become entrepreneurs and meeting basic schooling needs.

Additionally, both mentors and students have reported having stronger relationships, particularly that there is more trust between them. Mentors report they feel more empowered in teaching, and that, of course, contributes to better performances for both students and teachers.

Is it possible that the project will be replicated in other countries with high rates of rape, femicide, and other issues related to gender-based violence?

Yes. CARE works where there is the greatest need.  We know in areas that experience high levels of gender-based violence, as well as in areas that have highly disproportionate relationships between girls and boys, men and women, that these approaches work. We also know that in order to work towards equality, we need to work with both girls and boys as we have in the Safe Schools for Girls program.  

We are also looking to expand the program in Rwanda — the government has expressed interest in replicating the model in all Rwandan schools — and similar packages and projects are currently being implemented in additional African and Asian contexts. Those involved continue to work with families, communities, and local governments on issues of equality and social justice.  

More articles by Category: Education, Gender-based violence, Girls
More articles by Tag: Africa, Gender Based Violence, Male Allies



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