I came to see for myself the endemic issue of gender inequality in education, and immediately there was a large indication of a gender imbalance: Where were all the girls?
I fell from the bus and was soon marching in a troupe of elderly agricultural women, whose amusement was barely suppressed.
They went to the fields and I stumbled into the government EAV Kivomo School, a place, like many - representing the future of the nation, but whose gender equity is as archaic as its’ setting.
A teacher at the school explained, “When they arrive, there is a 40 by 60 percent divide, however we loose many and it’s getting worse.” There are 240 boys to 125 girls.
EAV Kivomo must be considered in context; the issues in girls’ education exist from primary school to university and the disparity in enrolment is indicative of primary school underperformance. Only 20 percent pass.
In secondary schools girls are well behind boys in passing Senior 3 (Tronc commun) exams; this is at a rate of 26.8 percent as compared to boy’s 49.3 percent. The result is an alarming imbalance at the universities.
The pattern at secondary schools is the most confusing and worrying. Girls admitted into government secondary schools – a favourable setting compared to their more numerous private counterparts – are at the zenith of burgeoning opportunities, but the continuing girls’ failures are a kiss of death to Rwanda’s pledge to become the ‘Singapore of Africa’.
The problem is twofold, girls are under achieving in exams and they are leaving; the causes are both linked and quite independent.
Whilst failure in exams is a large explanation for girls leaving education, the causes of poor performance are a different sphere to the external pressures that cause girls to leave school early.
“La mentalité,” was the teacher’s answer to the systematic under achievement of girls in his maths exams and this was confirmed by interviews with the female students.
I was told all manner of denunciations, that girls have ‘moins force’, ‘fear’, ‘a lot of sickness’; nothing could contrast more with the government’s message for girl education.
At the 10th anniversary of FAWE (Forum for African Women Educationalists) Rwanda chapter, the First Lady, Mrs Jeannette Kagame told the students, “you must all take advantage of opportunities and use them to acquire the know-how, confidence and leadership skills that will enrich your lives.”
There is clearly a disjunction between the ambitions of the state and the lowly sentiments of girls in the school environment.
The issue of girl’s low self esteem isn’t confined to maths and science, but they provide the clearest example of an engendered subject, with a 35 by 65 percent difference in secondary school enrolment and pass rates to match.
The constraints are manifold. A research paper cites male-dominated teaching staff with only 5 percent of teachers being women – and engendered teaching materials as the major issues.
There is one major subject which permeates girls under-achievement in education, boys. Teachers and students denied a gender bias at EAV School; however the issue was too entrenched to be recognised.
One teacher’s indignant response shows this clearly, “girls have just the same opportunities as boys if they choose to take them.
They can even set-up a girl’s football team!” Football is not a gender friendly sport, when I arrived at the school there was a boisterous football match being played to the chorus of male voices.
One girl provided an insight into the issue of mixed school environments. “Girls cannot speak everything like boys,” a comment indicative of a gender imbalance in the classroom, a reference to the “fear” cited earlier.
This is combined with girl’s prospective search for men at a young age. One teacher said, “the issue is largest from 13 to 17, the girls change and get involved with strange men.”
These relationships with ‘sugar daddies’ (as one girl referred to them) can lead to early marriages and, the end of the girls education.
The issue of gender imbalance in schools is recognised by MINEDUC in their annual awards for schools with the best girl environments. However, a solution to the problems of gender inter-relations has been shown by a number of successful all-girl school initiatives.
The FAWE Centre of Excellence provides a unique environment to empower young women.
The scheme has been successful with 80 young women who have specialised in maths and science and have gone ahead to study at public universities.
This simply illustrates the impotence of a mixed school environment and a potential solution to girl education woes.
Major ironies in girls’ education are the external factors that show they are under more pressure to pass their exams. This was articulated by one female student, “If I don’t pass my exams next year, I won’t have another chance.”
High numbers of students repeat years – at EAV it is at a rate of 15 to 20 percent and eventually, the girls often have to leave education as a result.
Poverty is an intractable issue to girls’ education, combining viciously with families’ perceptions of boys’ education as a better investment.
However, whilst the boys from poorer backgrounds often take the opportunities and aspire for ‘the good life’, girls from similar backgrounds under achieve, showing the importance of family in shaping gender values.
One student said her university ambitions resulted from the ‘love’ of her family.
The teachers at EAV are familiar with these issues, because they have directives to promote girls in class and intervene in relationships, but the challenge goes right up to the government.
Amongst other educational issues, such as quality and enrolment, gender equity is one of their largest challenges, with huge implications for the achievement of Vision 2020, Millennium Development Goals and Rwanda’s future development.
The government has major policy initiatives, and these are reflected in the annual ceremonies.
The highly gender sensitive EDPRS scheme, the guarantee of 30 percent of women in legislating positions and bursaries are efforts not lost.
The process of gender sensitisation is lengthy and indeed opportunities for girls in the last 10 years have improved greatly.
However EAV Kivomo School shows the difficulty of translating highly progressive centralised policies into realities for girls as they pursue their education.
The attack on entrenched gender values needs to be resolute and complete, with policies taken to the girls, teachers and families, from the school environment to the home before genuine gender equity and Rwanda’s ambitions can be achieved.
The importance of girl’s education was recognised by one UN representative at the Imbuto awards ceremony; “Umukobwa ni nyampinga” - a girl is a palace of wealth.
The author is an intern with The New Times from Britain.