Draped in green and gold graduation gowns, with smiles lighting up their faces, 85 girls walked across the stage at Gashora Girls’ Academy, last week, to receive their high school diplomas.
In sub-Saharan Africa where 22 million adolescents are not enrolled in secondary school according to Unesco, this moment is a remarkable achievement for any student.
“I’m full of excitement and I’m so grateful to graduate from this school because it’s a school full of opportunities,” said 17-year-old Divine Rusa Umutesi, a student.
President Paul Kagame attended the graduation ceremony to offer his congratulations to the students and call on them to contribute to the development of their country.
Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology in Busgesera District opened in February 2011, with the aim of increasing educational opportunities for girls as well as accelerating economic development in the country.
There are currently 270 girls enrolled at the school from seniors four to six.
Closing the Gap
Rwanda has achieved remarkable improvements in education over the past decade and has met the UN Millennium Development Goal to achieve gender equality in primary education enrolment.
However, gender gaps still persist in several areas, including enrolment levels in upper-secondary, success rates of upper-secondary examinations and enrolment in post-secondary education, according to 2012 statistics from the Ministry of Education.
“The biggest obstacle for girls is culturally lower expectations in terms of secondary study,” said Gashora Girls’ Academy head teacher Peter Thorp.
Because of the cultural perception that girls should stay home and learn how to maintain a household, many families with limited financial resources would choose to send only their boys to school instead of the girls.
The government-aided school allows families to pay fees according to their ability. This means only 15 per cent of families pay the full fee of $2,000 (about Rwf1.3 million) per year, while others pay as little as $42 (about Rwf28,000) per year.
As a result, students come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, representing districts across the country.
The school aims to educate the girls well enough to succeed in their national examinations. In 2012, only 84 per cent of females passed leaving examinations in upper secondary compared to 91.4 per cent of males.
For many students, their high school graduation ceremony last Friday was only the beginning of a bright future.
“Our students come here eager to work hard with the hopes they can go on to tertiary education,” Thorp said.
Teacher Amy Thorp advises students on university applications, saying they should make a list of universities they would like to attend in the country, and then move out to East Africa, South Africa and the US and Canada.
“We try to explore every opportunity possible for these girls to continue their education,” she said.
The school works closely with students to help them improve their English fluency and explore scholarship opportunities that would make it possible for them to attend post-secondary education in North America.
Science and Technology
Gashora Girls Academy focuses on science, technology, engineering and math subjects. The school was founded on the rationale that these are the skills necessary in the 21st century.
“We are trying to set a standard in education for girls in these subjects because it will result in them having the best jobs in the future and help Rwanda develop,” Amy Thorp said.
Across the world in 2012, an eighth of young people were unemployed and a quarter trapped in jobs on or below the poverty line according to Unesco.
Unesco recommends action to support skills development for young people, particularly targeting the disadvantaged such as young women. It recommends upper secondary curricula provide a balance between vocational and technical skills, including IT.
Gashora Girls Academy aims to arm its students with the skills necessary to succeed in Rwanda, which is not a resource-rich country and therefore aims to take a lead in science and technology subjects, said Thorp.
The school offers its students the use of two computer labs. Some girls from rural areas had never had access to a computer before, but it doesn’t take much to spark their interest.
“It requires absolutely zero effort to get students interested in technology, there’s an inherent interest but the real challenge is to focus their attention,” Thorp said.
Learning more about technology at Gashora Girls Academy helped 17-year-old student Alodie Iradukunda get interested in the field of computer science.
“We didn’t really have so much emphasis on technology before and now I’ve had so many opportunities to meet people from Kigali and the U.S. who have worked in computer departments and given us advice on how to be successful in this field,” Iradukunda said.
She aspires to work in telecommunications after attending university.
“If possible I would like to go to the US for a better education and then come back to contribute to the development of my country,” Iradukunda said.
Thorp said many of his students also developed an interest in science and one-third of them aspire to become health professionals, such as doctors, nurses, midwives, disease control or pathological intervention.
Student Rusa Umutesi became interested in science and plans to pursue a career in medicine.
“I wasn’t so much interested in science before, but this school encouraged me to go into science and to love science,” she said.
Another one-third of students are interested in becoming engineers, with civil engineering being the top choice, Thorp said.