Jeanne Mukamana was barely 20 years old when she got pregnant in high school and was forced to drop out.
As fate would have it, the boy responsible for the pregnancy abandoned her, and then family and friends followed suit. She was left to fend for herself, and she had no idea how to do it.
“I was depressed and wondered why God had forsaken me. I was so scared. I had to look for a way out and prepare for the baby,” the now 25-year-old says.
Mukamana managed to get a few small jobs from time-to-time. She would do laundry for neighbours or tend to their farms, and from this, she earned some money that helped her buy food.
“I gave birth but I could hardly afford clothing for the baby, life was hard,” she says.
In 2015, she heard about and joined the Financial Inclusion for Adolescent Girls (FINAG) – which was later scaled up to be the Enterprise Development for Out of School Adolescent Girls (EDOAG) – a project implemented by Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in partnership with CARE International in Rwanda.
Through the project, cooperatives from which she was able to save some money were available.
“When I joined the project, they taught us how to save money in cooperatives; I started with Rwf200 and eventually secured a loan of Rwf15, 000. I bought a piglet at Rwf10, 000 and saved the Rwf5, 000. Later, I managed to secure another loan of Rwf100, 000 through the cooperative,” she says.
As she worked tirelessly to make ends meet and take care of herself and the baby, her parents reached out to her and asked her to go back home.
“I think that my parents realised that I had learnt my lesson, and so they asked me to go back home. They even gave me a small piece of land to farm and I used it to start a tea plantation,” Mukamana says.
Her life has never been the same, and using her own experience as an example, she advises young girls to make the right decisions, and encourages them to never let circumstances determine their future.
“I encourage girls to be strong. I managed to get here and believe that whatever they are going through, they can overcome as well. I was once just a school dropout but now I am a businesswoman,” she says.
However, not all the beneficiaries dropped out because of an early pregnancy. Take Jeannette Anita, for example. She dropped out of school after completing senior five because her family couldn’t afford to pay her school fees.
Years went by and the fear of a bleak future started creeping up on her; what would become of her?
“I was depressed because I was of the view that school dropouts have no future,” the 23-year-old recalls, adding that she’d been doing a little farming to earn some money.
“Through some friends, I heard about FINAG/EDOAG. I was intrigued, and so I joined. Though I was not doing that well as a farmer before, I was encouraged to start saving and within a short time I got a loan,” she says.
From the saving and credit cooperative, Anita secured a loan of Rwf90, 000 and bought a cow which she later sold and made a profit of Rwf180, 000.
“I later bought a sewing machine and started making sweaters. I was trained at the association before I chose that line of work. I make sweaters for schools mostly, but I also have other clients. I can say that right now I am doing well financially, and I take care of my family,” she says.
Anita continued with the hard work and she managed to buy a second machine. She taught her mother how to use it as well and, together, they now run a family business.
Mukamana and Anita are just a few of the beneficiaries whose lives have been transformed for the better by YWCA.
Young Women’s Christian Association works to develop the leadership and collective power of women and girls in Rwanda through education, health and socio-economic empowerment, for themselves, their families, and their communities.
Formed in 1995, YWCA is a volunteer membership organisation for women, girls and vulnerable people with a presence at the grassroots level in 20 districts in Rwanda.
It aims at creating a world where all women are free from poverty and know their rights.
Through community mobilisation and visits to different schools, the organisation also aims at keeping young girls from dropping out of school. They empower the ones who have already dropped out, and fight gender-based violence and poverty among women.
The beneficiaries are provided with mentorship programmes, trained in various income-boosting techniques, and taught how to save, start and manage small businesses.
Pudentienne Uzamukunda, the general-secretary of YWCA, explains that one of their programmes aims at empowering girls who had to deal with unwanted pregnancies and HIV infection.
The organisation also offers training for young women in different aspects such as rights and sexual and reproductive health.
“We teach leadership skills, sexual health awareness and other issues they may have to face. We also have mentorship programmes on how to prepare for the future, this is done around different schools and in communities,” she says.
“We do what we can to see that we keep girls in school, at times they drop out because of poverty as they lack money to buy even basics like pads. With these programmes, we believe they can overcome such obstacles.”
Jean Pierre Sibomana, the programme director, points out that they aim at dream-drawing or goal-setting.
“All the programmes lead to one vision, which is to see women free from poverty and their rights respected. To secure livelihoods for women, we need to start from the young and provide them with the right skills,” he says.
He also notes that focus is put on peace-building through domestic violence prevention so that women focus on their development.
“Over the years the association has been in operation, we have registered many success stories; we have seen girls who had no confidence, and no hope for the future take control of their lives. We’ve seen women who were under extreme poverty gradually make it to a financially stable life,” he says.
Beneficiaries share their story
Fortune Uwineza got pregnant and was expelled from school, her family sent her away and she started life on the streets.
When she joined YWCA, she joined the FINAG/EDOAG project and got a loan of Rw10, 000 from a local cooperative and started making local beer.
“I got clients and I made a profit of Rwf3, 000 the first time. I was motivated and I knew this was going to change my life. After I got back on my feet, my family reached out to me,” she says.
Uwineza now owns a small bar in Muko, Huye District. She takes care of her child and is very proud of the hardworking woman she has become.
She advises other young women to fight for their future and take the lead in building the lives they want.
“Let us join hands and make sure that we achieve our goals; what we go through should not define our future, rather work hard for a bright future,” Uwineza says.
Anita Mukawera also dropped out of school after she got pregnant. Like Uwineza, her family distanced themselves from her.
She hit the streets, stranded and confused. Mukawera helped a few households with small farming projects, and managed to stay afloat with the little she earned.
“At one point I met a lady who later turned out to be my mentor; she introduced me to YWCA, and FINAG/EDOAG, and they really helped me transform my life.”
Mukawera is now a tailor; she gets contracts from different clients, especially schools, and makes enough money to survive.
She believes that there is no need to feel pity for oneself because one still has the capability to rise.
“I’m okay; I can take care of my child. What I advise young girls is to have the confidence to take charge of their lives, because hard work ultimately pays.”
What can be done to curb the issue of school dropouts?
Sensitisation with cell and school leaders, parents and students, on the importance of education and completing at least the 12-year basic education can help address the issue. Some girls drop out due to unfavourable features in their homes, school or general environment while others do not value education or the journey to employment.
Emmaus Sibomana, Project Coordinator
I think there is need to continue sensitising young girls and families. Also, it is important to put in place programmes that will inspire girls to stay in school. It would be good to have initiatives to curb poverty because a child cannot stay in school when they know that they will go to bed hungry.
Aline Providence Nkundibiza, Chairperson — Rwanda Women in/and Mining Organisation
I think this is caused by lack of motivation and inspiration in schools. By training teachers to make lessons more interesting, kids will look forward to school. But for this to happen, give teachers what they need to be comfortable to tackle the issue.
Alaine Uwambaye, Finance Administrator
Parents should teach their children the essence of education at an early age; they need someone to guide them. Parents who let their children drop out should be held accountable. Local leaders should also play a role in following up families whose children dropped out. The government should support those who drop out because some do so for reasons such as poverty and family feuds. This can be done through joint campaigns by various sectors.
Innocent Muvunyi, Communications Officer