|© UNICEF Rwanda/2008/Rippe|
|First Lady of Rwanda Jeannette Kagame congratulates one of 58 girls awarded prizes for academic excellence.|
By Carol Douglis
MUHANGA, Rwanda, 12 May 2008 – Earlier this month, 58 young women had their moment in the spotlight as Rwanda’s First Lady awarded them with prizes to celebrate their outstanding academic achievements.
Sponsored by UNICEF, the ceremony was held outside Kigali and organized by the Imbuto Foundation, which was created by First Lady Jeannette Kagame to support projects for education and welfare.
This is the First Lady’s fifth year of presenting awards to high-achieving girls. In total, 479 girls received prizes throughout the provinces. Younger students received a backpack with books and school supplies, while secondary-school winners received laptops and sponsorships for computer training.
“These gifts are meant to boost the performance of girls countrywide,” said Ms. Kagame.
Girls’ education becomes a national priority
Although initial primary school enrolment rates in Rwanda are high, poverty, under-qualified teachers, outdated curricula and various traditional beliefs all contribute to elevated dropout rates, especially for girls.
However, girls’ education is emerging as a national priority, thanks in part to the fact that Rwanda’s Constitution calls for at least 30 per cent of national lawmakers to be female. Today, Rwanda has the highest proportion of women legislators in the world: 49 per cent in Parliament and 35 per cent in the Senate.
“If we’re to continue have women in leadership positions, we need to prepare them from primary school all the way up,” said Minister of State for Primary and Secondary Education Théoneste Mutsindashyaka.
Obstacles for girls remain
Rwandan leaders are aware that both men’s and women’s contributions are needed for Rwanda to achieve its vision of developing an entrepreneurial, knowledge-based economy. Today, most Rwandans rely on subsistence agriculture.
The First Lady called for stronger efforts to stop sexual harassment and violence against children, which are obstacles to girls’ schooling. There are other obstacles as well, including poverty, work demands and the widespread belief that girls cannot succeed, especially in science.
In addition, some 100,000 children live in child-headed households; the head is usually an elder sister who does not attend school even if younger siblings do.
The lack of appropriate sanitation facilities in schools can also lead to dropping out. When girls must share toilets with boys, they often endure jeering and teasing. The government, UNICEF and partners are working to upgrade school sanitation facilities.
’A palace of wealth’
“If you continue on your academic path,” UNICEF Representative in Rwanda Dr. Joseph Foumbi told the girls during the awards ceremony, “you will be a winner and a mentor to your little sisters and theirs for generations to come. You will prove the old Rwandan proverb, Umukobwa ni nyampinga: ‘A girl is a palace of wealth.’”
The awards are part of a larger UNICEF/UN initiative to raise educational standards throughout the country. UNICEF is working to boost the quality of teacher training and has helped the Government of Rwanda draft a Girls’ Education Policy, expected to be ratified by Parliament soon.
In addition, UNICEF and partners have supported the government in creating 52 child-friendly schools. The success of the child-friendly programme has inspired the government to work to expand it to 400 schools, as well as to begin adopting child-friendly standards as quality norms for all schools nationwide.