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School campaign supports girls’ education and achievement in Rwanda

© UNICEF Rwanda/2007/ Kitaburaza
Nathalie Kaligirwa, 17, a role model for Rwandan girls, received the First Lady’s Award for Achievement in school.

By Peter Cenedella

KIGALI, Rwanda, 8 August 2007 – Nathalie Kaligirwa, 17, received the First Lady’s Award for Achievement during a ceremony launching the Rwandan Government’s new five-year campaign to promote gender parity, retention and achievement of girls in school.

Given to Nathalie in March of this year, the honour recognized her as a top-ranked student in the 2006 Leaving Examinations and was part of the government’s focus on role models for girls. For her hard work and performance, Nathalie received a laptop computer.

“I like to excel at whatever I do,” says Nathalie. “I worked very hard in school and never wasted my time.”

A school conducive to learning

Nathalie credits much of her success to the child-friendly atmosphere at her school, the Lycee Notre Dame de Citeaux in Kigali City – the kind of school the First Lady’s office and the Ministry of Education are promoting, with UNICEF’s assistance.

© UNICEF Rwanda/2007/ Kitaburaza
The child-friendly school model promoted by the Rwanda education campaign supports guidance and counselling for all boys and girls.

“The school has a conducive learning environment,” says Nathalie. “It promotes good hygiene and discipline. Teachers are committed to students’ success. We had time to work, play and rest.”

Her experience has Nathalie dreaming of the next step in her education. “I like science subjects – physics and mathematics – but I also like history,” she says. “My dream is to go to Harvard University in the USA and study computer science.”

Recovering from the genocide

Both Nathalie and her native country have come a long way since 1994. That year, Rwanda was plunged into a violent genocide that saw at least 937,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus representing 10 per cent of the population killed in the 100-day genocide, according to Rwandan Government figures.

Nathalie was four years old at the time. There were no guarantees that the children of her generation would be able to attain a meaningful adulthood, free from the ravages of violence. The killing left hundreds of thousands of children orphaned and a generation of girls and women at risk.

“In 1994, the social-economic fabric was destroyed,” says Aloisea Inyumba, who served as Rwanda’s first Minister of Family, Gender and Social Affairs after the genocide. “The majority of women were traumatized, a large number of them sexually abused [and] displaced. Some fled and some were taken as sexual hostages.”

Today, Ms. Inyumba is a Senator in the Rwandan Parliament and a member of the Senate Committee on Political Affairs and Good Governance.

© UNICEF Rwanda/2007/ Kitaburaza
When classrooms are not sufficient at child-friendly schools in Rwanda, makeshift classes are held outside in the open air.

Recognizing the vital role of women 

The violence of 1994 cast a long shadow on this land. Rwanda today is home to about 810,000 orphaned children. In addition to the legacy of the genocide, AIDS has taken a grim and steady toll on the population, leaving many young people to fend for themselves. More than 100,000 households are headed by children. 

And yet, says Senator Inyumba, “a lot has changed,” especially when it comes to gender, politics and education. “Setting up a strong Ministry of Gender, Family and Social Affairs after the genocide was a demonstration that a strong gender policy was going to be a basis for building a strong nation,” she notes. “Our government recognized women and gave them a vital role to play in rebuilding the country.”

Nowhere is that vitality clearer than in the education sector. In recent years, Rwanda has made great progress in enrolling girls in the nation’s 2,295 primary schools – part of the government’s deliberate attempt to promote gender equality. The Women’s Council and the First Lady’s office have been instrumental in driving girls’ enrolment rates up.

However, girls have proved much more likely than boys to drop out; only about half of all girls who enrol in primary school complete their education. 

An inspiration to Rwandan girls

This situation led to the current school campaign, launched by First Lady Jeanette Kagame and the Ministry of Education, with UNICEF’s support. The campaign inspires local schools and communities to look beyond girls’ enrolment, and to focus on retaining girls and getting them from primary into secondary school.

The campaign also gives awards to schools that meet minimum quality standards by providing a healthy, safe and protective environment through a UNICEF-supported child-friendly school model.

“We need to help Rwandan girls strengthen their self-confidence so that they can confront the challenges in life,” said the First Lady at the campaign launch. “Women can do everything that men can do. They should not be intimidated.” 

That certainly is true of Nathalie. “My message is: Don’t be shy, don’t be afraid of any subject,” she says. “Look at the role models in this country. You can also make it.”

Gertrude Kitaburaza contributed to this story.





July 2007:
Honour student Nathalie Kaligirwa and Senator Aloisea Inyumba discuss the girls’ education campaign in Rwanda.
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