The 2019 back-to-school season was, as usual, a bustling time across Rwanda’s schools. But while anticipation was swirling around Huye District, some students were not part of the excitement. Deborah Uwase was not going to return to Amizero Primary School, and unfortunately, this wasn’t her first experience with dropping out. You see, financial difficulties had consistently ensured Uwase could never sit through an entire school term — sometimes even taking full gap years. The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated the situation for the then 15-year-old. “My family situation was so bad that I would rarely get food to eat after school,” Uwase, now 19, told The New Times in an interview. She eventually decided to drop out permanently, she said, “Because I needed to start fending for myself. Maybe the government did what it could, but poverty prevented my family from playing its part.” Subsequently, Uwase got drawn into several drawbacks that often come with being a teenage dropout; bullying from former classmates, unemployment, family conflicts, and the all-too-common issue of unwanted pregnancy. By now, you have likely come across the commendations Rwanda has earned as one of the leading nations in the global effort to combat gender inequality. The educational statistics, in particular, reflect that. Despite a slight dip in national enrollment from 99.1 per cent in 2020/2021 to 95.3 per cent in 2021/2022, girls’ education tells a tale of progress over the last two decades, especially in terms of equity and accessibility. The nation's 5,786 elementary and secondary schools provide education for over 3.4 million children, accounting for about 83 per cent of Rwanda’s learners. Among them, female students constitute more than 50.7 per cent. The overall number of learners across all education levels has risen, with a higher proportion of female students. This data is extracted from the Rwanda Education Statistical Yearbook for 2021/22 — a comprehensive report compiled by the Ministry of Education for the academic year concluding in July 2022. Covering aspects such as school infrastructure, access to education, enrollment, retention, gender parity, school staff, ICT integration, and availability of school textbooks, the revelations from this report are indeed enlightening. In Rwanda, secondary school enrollment rose from 283,000 in 2020/21 to 288,801 in 2021/22, marking an increase of 5,801 students, as per the data. Female students outnumbered their male counterparts across all classes. The same data, however, reveals that out of the 86,363 students who registered in 2019, a sizable portion—45,792 (about 53 per cent) of whom were female—didn’t progress to senior three in lower secondary or senior six in higher secondary. Much like Uwase’s situation, only a few of these students ever return to school. Additionally, the highest count of individuals not attending school falls in the 18-22 age group, totaling 965,641 individuals. This is because fewer people pursue higher education. Once again, females constitute the larger proportion of those out of school, making up more than 51.3 per cent. In higher education institutions, the General Enrollment Rate (GER) for males is generally higher than that for females, with rates of 8.1 per cent and 6.1 per cent, respectively. This scenario has naturally received heightened attention from the people in charge. School-based mentorship programmes, socio-economic support through Ubudehe, community health clubs, and campaigns for girls’ education work together to create a supportive environment and address various challenges in girls’ education. Rwanda has made primary education free and has also eliminated school fees for the first nine years of basic education. The Girls’ Education Policy, introduced in 2016, places a high priority on tackling gender-based disparities, and employing strategies to improve girls’ enrollment, retention, and performance in schools. Launched in the same year, the Imbere Heza Programme concentrates on enhancing overall education quality, with a specific focus on addressing gender-related challenges. Girl-Friendly Schools initiatives involve creating a conducive learning environment, offering separate sanitation facilities, addressing hygiene needs, and ensuring a safe and supportive atmosphere. So why, despite all these efforts, have Rwandan school policies not succeeded in pulling girls out of their academic black hole? Experts suggest that the intricate and deeply rooted interplay of socio-economic status and the mindset of some parents and communities regarding girls’ education, in comparison to boys, is too complex to change. “Similar to other developing countries, Rwandan girls face challenges in primary and secondary education because of the societal belief in women as secondary,” said Jean Bosco Uwizeyimana, who has worked as a school counsellor at Ecole des Sciences Byimana, School Manager at Rwabuye TTS, and Principal of TTC Save. “So when poverty affects the family, making it difficult to afford school contributions for all children, parents often choose for the girl to drop out.” In one of the cases he encountered as an educator, Uwizeyimana shared the story of a female student who would attend school every two weeks or so, lacking sufficient materials. She revealed that her father opposed their education simply because she was a girl. “He didn’t see the point of spending resources on educating girls, as he believed they would get married and leave him after school,” Uwizeyimana explained. To meet the school requirements, the mother had to discreetly take and save some money from their father until they had enough for school. “Akanyana (not real name) repeated a grade several times. I learned about her story when she requested to leave school permanently,” recounted the counsellor. Another concerning issue is teenage pregnancies. On average, 20,000 teens become pregnant each year, and this number surged to 33,423 in 2022, marking a 17.5 per cent increase from 2017 to 2022. The Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion in Rwanda reported that 13,000 girls under the age of 19 had to drop out of school due to teen pregnancies between August and December 2022. How can we improve now? In an interview with Rose Baguma, the Director General of Education Planning at the Ministry of Education, she contended that the government has fulfilled its role, and it is now up to the parents to take action. The government, she said, has provided the necessary support through policies, laws, strategies, and regulations, constructed schools to reduce overcrowding and long distance, and introduced girls’ rooms. “The bigger role is to be played by parents,” Baguma said. If parents and communities amplify their efforts, “the results will bolster up.” “Parents need to interact with schools closely to raise the consciousness that lifts the burden disproportionately placed on girls at home,” Lonzen Rugira, a Public Policy commentator and education expert agreed. In fact, “Actually, Rwanda is one of the countries trying. You need leadership that understands that development is not possible without putting in place an environment where girls and boys live up to their full potential,” he added. Their observations are valid. At the same time, they imply that the issue of girls not completing school has evolved from a national concern to a more specific one, demanding a targeted solution with the primary responsibility falling on parents. Minister of State for Youth and Arts, Sandrine Umutoni, sees it another way. “Many countries on the continent still have an education system that's many decades old, yet technology is advancing. The demands of the 21st century are different,” she said. “We need to revise the curriculum and reconsider the number of hours a child spends in the classroom. For those in the informal sector, we are exploring the idea of creating weekend programmes, although we don't have an official name for it yet. This way, individuals supporting their parents with various responsibilities can have some time outside regular school hours to contribute.” She continued, “So there have also been discussions with the Gender Monitoring Office, the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, and the National Agency for Child Development to establish a structure. This way, even if a young mother doesn’t have supportive parents, she can still find a safe place for her child to be taken care of while she attends school.” For students like Uwase, who now has a baby to care for without family support, Umutoni suggested that a combination of these efforts—along with the involvement of parents, of course—could be a positive step in the right direction. This article is from The New Times’ quarterly newsletter, ‘Beyond Talk’. For more exclusive stories, please subscribe here.