Safe Schools for Girls: Building capacity of vulnerable adolescents

When 15-year-old Zainab Uwamahoro joined high school, she not only encountered changes with her academics, but her personal life as well. She realised that her transformation into a young woman had come with disguised challenges; whereas her requirements before as a young girl were mostly academic essentials, she now required more, such as monthly sanitary pads for her menstrual cycle.

This was not easy seeing that her parents could barely afford most necessities. And because of this, she would at times miss school, she says.

She mentions challenges faced by young girls, observing that she is just a single case among many facing the same issue.

“A number of girls drop out of school because of this. We still face a number of challenges, some girls skip school because of period poverty, others do because of teen pregnancies, among other challenges,” she says.

It is on this note that she applauds the ‘Safe Schools for Girls’ initiative, noting that ever since it was integrated at their school — GS Hanika, Nyanza District in Southern Province, a lot has transformed for the better.

The initiative is an integrated multi component education programme that provides a set of life skills on financial literacy, leadership and adolescent sexual reproductive health. It is implemented by CARE Rwanda, a non-government organisation that aims at saving lives, defeating poverty and achieving social justice.

Through this project, Uwamahoro says that they have been able to access comprehensive sexuality education and have been taught how to make local sanitary pads.

“We are learning a lot and the trainings are boosting our confidence, this I believe is going to address issues such as teen pregnancies and cases of school drop outs,” she says.

Sam Kalinda, the project’s manager, says that with this plan, the aim is to build capabilities of marginalised adolescent girls and boys by supporting them in their pursuit of opportunities.

“We want to aid them in realising their aspirations, improve their low-agency and also foster an enabling school environment, and to provide responses to social-economic challenges girls face when they are at or out of school,” he says.

Since its inception in 2016, the programme has benefited over 82,913 adolescents (including 43,639 girls and 39,274 boys) in 174 lower secondary schools in five districts (Muhanga, Kamonyi, Ruhango,Nyanza and Huye), Southern Province of Rwanda.

Since this is an education programme, Kalinda reveals that they have tracked education outcomes, particularly schools’ performance and found that, 10,007 boys and 7,551 girls transitioned to upper secondary last year (2019), and there was a reduced dropout rate from 3% in 2018 to 1% in 2019 for all project participants.

A better learning environment

The programme has a ‘school score card’ component that brings together students, teachers and school leaders to assess the level of empowerment for girls to voice concerns, identifying potential solutions and engaging school management to address issues such as sexual harassment, sexual and gender-based violence prevention.

Elizabeth Niyirora, a mentor at GS Hanika Nyanza, says this is a platform for adolescent-led advocacy, enabling them to influence decision makers towards a policy direction that helps to retain girls and boys in school.

She also says it fosters accountability among decision makers, local officials, parents and students towards good governance that creates a better environment for learning.

Increased self-reliance

And as a way of guiding students for self-reliance, the programme is encouraging a savings culture. This is being done through formation of students’ savings and loans groups.

Kalinda explains that with it, students access an avenue to build and practice financial skills such as saving, budgeting, and entrepreneurship.

Thereafter, students are coached on how to invest in small income-generating activities, taking care not to divert their attention from education. The income generated is used to help girls to take care of their immediate needs, such as school and hygiene materials, hence, enabling them to stay in school, he says.

He adds that these groups are perceived as particularly successful in making boys and girls aspire to a vision of increased self-reliance and economic empowerment. This is seen as a shift from a ‘day by day’ mind-set, in which boys and girls consume the little money they have on sweets and doughnuts, to a more ‘future oriented’ one — in which consistent saving of little money becomes the path to follow in order to reach their goal of financial security.

“Participants who have started saving are proud of being able to buy school materials, clothes, shoes, pads for girls without having to seek support from their parents. This makes them feel safer in their education to acquire more value in their families and communities.”

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