In 2008, Rwanda released a girls’ education policy that would influence tremendous changes in the education sector, with the enrollment of boys and girls in primary school being equal, but with much more girls completing school. In 1996, the enrollment rate between girls and boys in Rwanda was 68 and 79 percent, respectively, but in 2022, both girls’ and boys’ enrollment rates were almost at 99 percent. Currently, girls are more likely to complete primary and lower-secondary than their male counterparts, whether on time or ultimately. 69.1 percent of girls complete primary school on time, but 58.4 percent of boys complete on time. Also, 79.2 of girls will complete ultimately, while only 73.9 percent of boys will complete. ALSO READ: Kagame makes case for education of the girl child This means that Rwanda is far ahead than the Sub-Saharan Africa average in girls’ completion, where only 68.8 percent of girls will complete primary school on time, while 75.6 percent will complete ultimately. In upper-secondary completion rate, Rwanda’s rate is below the Sub-Saharan Africa average where 33.8 girls will complete in time, and 42.7 percent complete ultimately. However, far less boys are completing, with just 29.5 percent of them completing in time, and 42.5 completing ultimately. Although for girls, this is a tremendous development, far less girls are completing upper-secondary school. Only 20.7 percent complete on time, and 26.5 percent ultimately complete. As the world marks the International Day of the Girl, calculations by the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report reveal substantial progress made in ensuring equal numbers of girls and boys in school, with 50 million more girls enrolling in school since 2015. In Rwanda, close to 260,000 more girls are in school. The report, however, shows that the exception to this success includes Sub-Saharan Africa, where girls remain far less likely to go to school at any education level. Rwanda’s enrollment on the other hand, is far higher than the global average. However, almost all Rwandan girls are enrolling in school, but not even half of them are completing at least upper-secondary. In this Q&A, The New Times’ Glory Iribagiza asks Manos Antoninis, the Director the GEM Report, what the challenges are and how they can be overcome. Excerpts: How do you think Rwanda is doing in girls’ access to education? As always, it depends on how one looks at the data. Of course, if you only look at girls on their own, then you don't necessarily get the full picture of what's happening. There are numbers on how there has been progress in terms of access to education, and a considerably larger number of girls are attending school. Of course, the population is increasing but still, it is a major increase. In Rwanda, girls already by now, are far more likely to compete primary school on time and even late. In lower secondary school, girls have four- point advantage in completing on time. And they are equal with boys for late completion. So, already you see from here that girls are more committed and motivated to progress through school. Again, these indicators move very slowly in any country in the world. On average, even the fastest country in the world moves with a little bit over one percentage point a year. So, in that sense, Rwanda is well above average in terms of the trend, but if you look of course, historically, in some ways, it is basically catching up with where it would have been if the Genocide had not taken place. Why are far much less girls completing secondary school in Rwanda? Rwanda is actually quite typical of other African countries. And also, although it has made some improvement, there is a very, very serious problem, and I say it's serious because it affects girls, especially. Children start school late and still repeat many classes. And that is a problem, especially for girls and for poor boys, because girls are expected to leave school early, and get married and have children. For boys, they are expected to go to work. ALSO: Editorial: Protecting the girl child above all So, this this problem of late enrollment and repetition affects girls a lot. The numbers that we call the official completion rate, are calculated over a particular age group. In Rwanda, children are expected to complete primary school by age 11. But we know that in so many countries in the world, that doesn't happen. So, we calculate that over the age group 14 to 16. But if we take into account also those who complete school, five, six years later or seven, then these numbers continue increasing. But there are many, like millions of children in Africa, who complete even beyond that period. But Rwanda is among those countries where girls are advancing, and as you see, even with late completion they're doing as well as boys. What do the numbers reflect for Rwanda’s future in education? The only area of education where girls are still lagging a little bit behind is upper-secondary education. But even here, they still have a two-percentage point advantage over boys in timely completion. But they are a little bit less than 2 percent behind the boys in upper secondary conditions. So ultimately, 28 percent of boys complete secondary school, and 26 and a half percent of girls complete upper secondary school. But you see that there's a tendency that in a few years, even in this stage, girls will be more likely to complete upper secondary school than boys. And in that sense, Rwanda is one of those countries that exemplifies that strength, which has been observed practically everywhere else in the world except Africa, where now there are more girls completing secondary school and moving into universities than boys. How do you think Rwanda is doing compared to the region? It is hard to give a specific response on this question, but the main message I seem to convey is that Rwanda is exemplifying these trends. What is interesting, perhaps, is that Rwanda is still a low-income country and therefore it's an exception among low-income countries along that route which sees that now, girls are more likely to complete school. And I imagine that might have at least something to do with also the employment opportunities that are available for young women in Rwanda. What can Rwanda do better to have more girls complete school on time? I think there is a commitment in the government policy to ensure that children do not continue if they do not achieve the learning outcome. So that is commendable. But at the same time, it is important to recognize that some children learn at different speeds and therefore it is important to keep them in school because school delivers all sorts of important development outcomes. And eventually, maybe some of those who stay in school end up learning. So, it's, it's important to think carefully about the repetition policy. Not perhaps to be too strict, and continue investing in remedial education perhaps could help some of those children catch up. Do you think the access to free sanitary pads has kept more girls in school? It has. There have been studies- of course, always small scale, not Rwanda in particular- but there's no doubt that for symbolic reasons, but also for practical reasons, ensuring that the proper sanitation facilities and when possible, availing products that can help girls that are disadvantaged is a strong policy like school feeding. The problem here is just to ensure that it happens in a way that is not stigmatizing. There are some efficiency losses if you of course, give that product to everyone, because some people can afford them. But there's also an important method to have a policy that applies to everyone. Because if some children know that it's only them receiving it, then it creates some negative emotions. So, these policies need to be designed in a sensible and sensitive way to ensure that every child, every girl feels part of the community and they're not singled out for being poor or having fewer resources. What are some of the best practices Rwanda can share with other countries? I think one of the practices that has been identified as potentially having a good impact not only on girls, because as I mentioned, already girls are doing better- and I think which probably explains the progress in enrollment and completion, is the fact that a responsibility has been assigned to local government officials. Local government officials are supposed to monitor what's happening. There is a sense of community and commitment to achieve goals for schools and for districts. And I think that you know that the idea that this public administration has goals for which it's proud of and is trying to achieve, is an achievement that many other African countries have not been able to achieve. And of course, we cannot underestimate the fact that the government's involvement even in the middle of the pandemic with so many problems, invested in this large program to construct tens of thousands of classrooms.