It's 11 in the morning at Groupe Scolaire Nyagatovu, a primary school in Nyanza. At one corner of the school compound, in a small newly constructed building block, a group of about 20 girls are gathered for a frank talk about sexual reproductive & health rights education, and how to identify and avoid different kinds of harassment in society.
Two mentors, Hodavi Niyomugisha and Esther Mukashyaka, are speaking to the girls, teaching them about reproductive health, their rights, fighting different forms of harassment, having self-confidence, and how to manage money. This is the ‘Safe Space Program’ under ‘Speak Out,’ a four- year project that started last year, funded by UK Department for International Development through ActionAid Rwanda (AAR). The project will address Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights and Gender-Based Violence in Rwanda, targeting girls and women’s rights organizations.
Speak Out project aims at increasing girls’ confidence and knowledge of their rights, ability to claim their rights, take control over their bodies and make their own decisions. The project is being implemented by ActionAid Rwanda(AAR) in partnership with Faith Victory Association and Association des Guides du Rwanda in four districts which include Nyanza, Karongi, Gisagara and Nyaruguru. The project targets 5,600 young school girls between 9-18 years of which 4% are girls with disabilities. It also includes 14 women’s rights organizations of which are two that represent women and girls with disability.
Umurerwa Orianne , 11 , p6 at Busasamana Primary School
Mentor Hodavi Niyomugisha cherishes the program for teaching as well as giving girls some private room to deal with situations like monthly periods. “We have a room for girls. If one gets sick, she can access it to take a nap. Or, if a girl goes into her periods she can still access the room to bathe and change.” She recognizes the need to make the girls her close friends so that they will be able to take confidence in her, share their challenges and ask questions about what they don’t understand. Niyomugisha also gives the girls lessons about balanced diets and making vegetable gardens, which she thinks can be good when they go out in society and practice what they have learned.
Speak Out Teaches Girls to Know Their Rights
Since its launching one year ago, the project is yielding results, beneficiaries say. At Groupe Scolaire Nyagatovu, Yohana Rugerindinda, father of Tabitha Iratabara, a nine year old who is in the program, is very happy with how the program has benefited his daughter. “It’s a project that my child told me about. She said it is a program where girls learn about avoiding harassment which may include things like rape and defilement. I see it as an important program. Teaching a child is my responsibility, so if someone comes out to help me, it is a good thing,” he said.
Rugerindinda admits that it would sometimes be hard for him, as a father, to sit his girl down and tell her about body changes. He says that in ordinary life, parents somehow don’t pay attention to teaching children about reproductive health, and he believes that the project is an opportunity to tackle the problem. “They learn a lot here. They share what they have learnt with their mother and she tells me. We also try to contribute and add some information to what they have learned. I feel it has an impact on how they are progressing. When you are not close to children, they get problems and can even fear to tell you. I think they are getting lessons here about speaking out. I now believe they can tell me in case of a problem,” he says.
9 year Iratabara says she is now able to identify and avoid different kinds of harassment. She knows that beating her, making her overwork, and calling her bad names are all kinds of harassment that she has to stand up against not only for herself, but for her fellow girls as well. “If I get to know a child that is being harassed, I will tell the leaders or teachers at school,” she says.
Speak Out Empowers Girls To Make Their Own Decisions
Other children at the school also speak about how the project has impacted them. 18-year-old Claire Mugese, a Senior 3 student says she learnt to deal with her body as she grew, as well as to be on guard against lies that could lead to early sex. She says she learnt to “say no.” Her classmate, Rachel Munezero, 15, learnt how to behave during her monthly periods especially in maintaining hygiene.
Christine Mukankusi is a Biology and Chemistry teacher at the same school. She thinks the program is changing a number of things. She says that due to culture, people found themselves keeping quiet even when they were facing harassment, a thing that the campaign is trying to turn around. “The girls don’t allow anyone to touch them. They have learnt to speak out and no one can harass them,” she said. Even in other spheres of life, she says the program is changing things. For instance, she points out that there was some kind of work that was meant only for girls at home, and boys would not be concerned. This would make the girls overwork, and miss classes, or even perform poorly at school.
Mentor Hodavi Niyomugisha cherishes the program for teaching as well as giving girls some private room to deal with things like monthly periods. “We have a room for girls. If one gets sick, she can access it to relax. Or, if a girl goes into her periods she still can be put there to bathe and change. In that room, the girls have access to sanitary towels and other hygienic materials to use.” She recognizes the need to make the girls her close friends so that they will be able to take confidence in her, share their challenges and ask questions about what they don’t understand. Niyomugisha also gives the girls lessons about balanced diets and making vegetable gardens, which she thinks can be good when they go out in society and practice what they have learned.
At Kavumu Adventist, another school in the same district, 11 year old Oriane Umurerwa, a girl with a disability in her arm is part of the program. She says it taught her to respect and obey parents. She also delights in the fact that they don’t discriminate her because she lives with a disability. She says she can also help children, especially those living with disabilities, who are faced with harassment to tell them that they are being harassed, in case they didn’t know.
Kantarama Marie Frederick, a citizen of Taba village, in Remera cell, Muganza sector, Gisagara district, is an important member of the program. She is the coordinator of three clubs of parents who sit down during different days of the week to find solutions about the livelihoods of their children, especially concerning behavior at home and sexual reproductive and health rights education. The clubs sit on different days of the week but she chairs them altogether on Sunday afternoon,
“We discuss about our children, their adolescence, or challenges they face. We look at how to help those that have been harassed. Rather than chasing them away, we try to bring them close and show them not all is fallen apart.” She says that the area had some challenges concerning early pregnancies, and the men responsible for them were adults, some of whom are married.
Kantarama says they focus on advising the children as well as other citizens on the right behavior. “We tell the children that craving for material things can lead them to a bad future. We tell the parents to try to get some necessities for their children, so that they will not go looking for them.” She sees positive change already. For instance, children come to her by themselves asking for advice. The same happens with parents. “We found that to fight harassment, we need to tell children the truth. We need a culture of telling the truth,” she says.