Barely 18 years old, Doris, (name withheld) left her home due to poverty to find means of survival. Shortly after she left home, she was defiled and impregnated.
While she was shunned away and became the laughing stock in her village, the father of her child walked around scot-free. With no money to fend for herself, she contemplated an abortion, but thanks to some officials from Rwanda Women’s Network, she reconsidered her decision and delivered a healthy baby.
“I learned the value of saving and realised that I did not have to live with a man I do not like just so he can support my child, and I’m single-handedly raising my child. I also learned that since I was underage there was legal action that had to be taken against the man who impregnated me,” Doris testified during a public dialogue by Rwanda Women’s Network dubbed ‘Her body, her life, her future,’ that was in support of the 16 days of activism against gender based violence.
Mary Balikungeri addressing the audience of young people during the dialogue by Rwanda Women’s Network . Courtesy photos
The conversation aimed at promoting a society where girls and women’s full potential is unlocked, because they have the power to make informed decisions about their lives.
Odette Musengimana, the executive director of Reseau de Femmes, said that while Rwanda has been considered the frontrunner in terms of gender equality and women’s rights, not only have we not fully achieved equality, but in many cases, women’s rights, especially in rural areas, are undermined.
“In rural areas when a woman gives birth, the child’s responsibility and wellbeing becomes entirely hers. This is why rural women need to be empowered so that they are fully involved in the transformation of their lives, and become actors and vectors of a positive change.
“When girls learn their values, they can pass that on to their children. All this would be possible if we achieved gender equality because of how our society and parents have brought up the girl-child.
“Men and women ought to stand up for women’s rights and against society’s mistreatment and against all forms of inequality that hinder women’s development,” she said.
Silas Ngayaboshya, the programme manager at RWAMREC, said that the value society gives men tends to supersede that of women, and as a result, silences their opinions. He added that an era where the government and other organisations are stepping up to sensitise teenagers about their rights, young people also need to play their part in dismantling misconceptions and inequality imposed by society that puts downs the rights and freedoms of individuals.
“Phrases like a girl cannot make personal decisions”, “you need to be man enough to lure girls into sexual intercourse”, “girls who dress skimpily entice men to sleep with them” or if you buy her something you have a right to her body, are just some of the many wrong messages that society has taught young men.
“As such, if we only focus on the girl-child alone and do not talk to the young men to respect women, there will be a cycle of teenage and unwanted pregnancies because efforts require both parties,” he said.
He added that some studies show that boys and girls are both born with empathy and compassion, but family and society show them a different path to take and instills superiority complex in the boy-child.
Rural women need to be empowered so that they are fully involved in the transformation of their lives.
“We see that in the way they tell boys that a real man is one who has the final decision, or how it is okay for him to have sexual intercourse, yet shame women. Women who join sports are also told how it is not lady-like for them, and to tone down their energy.”
On his part Aflodis Kagaba, the executive director, Health Development Initiative, society tendencies of name shaming girls with unwanted pregnancies should also be unacceptable because men too are accountable.
“We should not give room for inequality to build up by society. As the youth are increasingly being sensitised about their rights and effects of gender inequality and injustices, they ought to change the narrative because it affects both genders.
“While girls risk pregnancies, boys too can contract HIV. A man should not be the reason why girls go through these injustices. This is why girls should know their rights, stay in school and receive medical attention,” he said.
He added that about 48 per cent of pregnancies countrywide are unwanted, an indicator that many people do not have protected intercourse.
The panel L-R: Clemintine Uwiraguye, Silas Nagayaboshya, Aflodis Kagaba and Odette Musengimana. Courtesy photos
“Our government’s commitment is that nobody should be denied access to medical services, and although it’s illegal to abort an unborn child, certain conditions like rape grant girls the right, and rather than carry out unsafe abortion, it is better to go to a doctor and be safe.
“Also, while you could report the perpetrator, the victims need to know that their health comes first. Even if you are not raped but had sexual intercourse, you need to take birth control or protect yourself if you are sexually active, so that way you can avoid unwanted pregnancies,” he said.
Clementine Uwiraguye, a Rwanda Women’s Network girl champion, said that while some families force girls into early marriages, young people need to learn to stand by their decisions.
“If a girl knows her rights, she will be able to convince the man intended to marry her to let her carry on her dreams, which becomes a lesson to other parents that girls too have value in society,” she said.
Youth from across the country that turned up for the public dialogue shared their views.
Speaking to the audience of mostly teenage girls and boys, Mary Balikungeri, founder of Rwanda Women’s Network, noted that as continuous efforts to sensitise teenage girls about their rights and avoid teenage pregnancies progress, girls and boys alike ought to contemplate their future and the consequences of their actions on their dreams, which will in turn influence their decisions.Follow https://twitter.com/SharonKMugabo